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Cannonball Read V: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

By Shaman | Books | May 23, 2013 |

By Shaman | Books | May 23, 2013 |

I picked up this book after seeing it on several Top-100 lists of Science Fiction books. People discussing the book on online forums talked about how it had affected them profoundly. So, naturally, I expected a lot from it.

Flowers for Algernon is the story of Charlie Gordon, a 30-odd year old man with the mental capacity of a little child. Growing up, all Charlie had ever wanted was to become smart and have friends. Then, one day, he’s given the chance to participate in an experiment, an operation that’s only been performed on a mouse before -the titular Algernon-, which, if all goes well, will turn him into a genius. Sure enough, through Charlie’s written reports, we witness his transformation from a likeable, mentally handicapped person to someone whose intelligence surpasses even that of the people who designed the experiment.

The story is told from Charlie’s perspective, through his accounts of everyday life, as they become more and more complicated, more and more grammatically correct. As Charlie becomes smarter, his language changes, and with it the way he perceives himself and his surroundings. He starts noticing things about the people in his life that he had neither noticed or comprehended before. He starts making connections and remembering significant events in his life, which in turn changes his attitude towards the world.

Keyes created an original story about a subject that is today as relevant as ever: knowledge, intelligence and the status they have in society. Some of the words he uses are so politically incorrect today (for example, moron or retarded) but we have to remember that Flowers for Algernon was written in 1966: indeed, despite the language that he uses, he means no offense. He has nothing but affection for mentally disabled people, whom he sees as small children, people, worthy of our respect.

This book should have become a favourite of mine, seeing as its subject matter (social inequalities, the human brain etc) is one that I am very interested in. The promise many reviews made that it would touch me deeply resonated with me on some level, and I expected some emotional devastation that never came. Instead, I cringed at how insufferable Intelligent Charlie was. I found the glorification of intelligence at the core of this book to be at odds with what the author also seemed to be saying, which is that terrible things only become terrible if we’re smart enough to understand that they are so. Charlie went through his childhood afraid at times, but always with a warm smile on his face, laughing along when his friends laughed at him. Keyes seemed to imply that with knowledge and intelligence comes misery (and he mentions Plato’s Cave a couple of times) at the same time as he has his main character desperate to become intelligent. I am not sure if that was Keyes’ intention, but the message his book seems to send is that life is terrible no matter if you’re smart or dumb - you just don’t know it if you’re dumb. You have to either choose to have friends and think you’re happy, or be smart - never both. I am oversimplifying here, of course, and picking out only one of the themes in the book, but it was a theme that was quite central to the story and which I felt was something of a false dilemma. And maybe that is why the book failed to affect me as deeply as all the online reviews suggested it would: I had trouble believing that the only possible outcome of becoming smart is that you become depressed and arrogant.

Overall, the book has many good points (originality, accurate portrayal of the way the human brain works, the author’s intention to show the reader that mentally disabled people deserve our respect), but it failed to have an emotional impact (maybe because it was preaching to the choir). It certainly made me think about the human condition, though.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it , and find more of Shaman’s reviews on the group blog.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)