Sunday, May 29, 2011

SF Masterworks #25: Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon

progris riport 1 martch 3

Dr Strauss says I should rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on.  I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me.  I hope they use me becaus Miss Kinnian says mabye they can make me smart.  I want to be smart.  My name is Charlie Gordon I werk in Donners bakery where Mr Donner gives me 11 dollers a week and bred or cake if I want.  I am 32 yeres old and next munth is my brithday.  I tolld dr Strauss and perfesser Nemur I cant rite good but he says it dont matter he says I shud rite just like I talk and like I rite compushishens in Miss Kinnians class at the beekmin collidge center for retarted adults where I go to lern 3 times a week on my time off.  Dr. Strauss says to rite a lot evrything I think and evrything that happins to me but I cant think anymor because I have nothing to rite so I will close for today...yrs truly Charlie Gordon. (p. 1)

Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon may be the most widely-read Hugo/Nebula-winning story that its readers never stopped to think of as science fiction.  Ever since its release in novel form in 1966 (it previously appeared in a novella incarnation in 1960), it has been a staple of required English reading lists.  When I first read it at the beginning of my Honors English III class in the fall of 1990, there was nothing said about this being a SF story, yet over twenty years later, it is perhaps one of my all-time SF favorites, despite not thinking of it in those terms until a few years ago.

Centered around the progress report/diaries that the mildly retarded (IQ 68) Charlie Gordon writes over a memorable eight month period, Flowers for Algernon immediately captures the reader's attention through the direct way in which Charlie speaks to the reader.  Learning immediately that he is an eager-to-please adult, we take pity on Charlie, as he struggles with the immediate aftermath of a radical new surgery designed to boost his intelligence to over twice that of "normal" adults.  We see the many cruel jokes played on him by his co-workers at Mr. Donner's bakery and the realization Charlie has to what "pulling a Charlie Gordon" means to those who measure their own self-worth against that of a mentally unabled adult.  However, Keyes' story is much more complex than just detailing the differentness with which we treat those among us who are mentally lower-functioning.

When I chose to revisit Flowers for Algernon for the first time in over a decade, I had in memory Charlie's radical transformation from a child-like, trusting simple soul to a cynical, arrogant, somewhat aloof genius who still lived in fear of the inner Charlie within.  While this impression is of course a true one, it is also very incomplete.  What Keyes explores here through Charlie is how we relate to others unlike ourselves.  Written before the special education reforms of the 1970s, when the functionally delayed children and adults were locked away into institutions rather than being integrated wholesale into society, Flowers for Algernon gives a scathing rebuke of the callous treatment which "normal" society gave to the so-called retarded.  These critiques usually do not appear directly in didactic expounding, but rather in the little comments in Charlie's journals as he notes his changing opinion of the people around him.

Parallel to Charlie is the lab mouse Algernon, who received the same intelligence-boosting neuro-surgical procedure some time prior to Charlie's own operation.  At key points in the novel, Charlie's development is recast in terms of Algernon's own changes from an ordinary lab rat who runs the courses for rewards before it begins to show signs of rejecting its masters' wishes.  This parallelism also serves as a foreshadowing for the latter events of the novel, as Charlie comes to realize the course of the experiment and its fatal flaw.

There is also a romantic angle to Flowers for Algernon, one that underscores the difference between Charlie's cognitive and emotional development.  It was these scenes that makes the final scenes so tragic, as Charlie struggles to integrate his new-found intelligence with his burgeoning attraction to his former teacher.  Keyes' choice of describing this conflict in terms of a near-disassociative state allows the reader a closer look into the fragile state of Charlie's personality during this time of rapid change.  Because we see so much of Charlie, scenes such as this serve as a chilling reminder of what is in store for him after he discovers what the ultimate consequence of the experiment will be for him.

Flowers for Algernon is one of those rare novels that reveal much more to a reader on a repeat read, especially if a period of years elapse.  It works as a diary of a conflicted character, a social commentary on the treatment of the mentally disabled, and as a tragic romance.  Charlie's character is engaging due to his vivid descriptions of life and himself.  Keyes' ability to show Charlie's changes through how he writes his journals makes this novel a captivating experience when it so easily could have been trite or overblown if Charlie's personality was not so visible in those journals.  Flowers for Algernon is a true mid-20th century American classic and it will continue to resonate with those who wonder about those near tabulae rasae who we pass every day in the streets or at school and rarely stop to think about who they are in our rush to dismiss what they are.

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