BOOK REVIEW – DANIEL KEYES – FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON 1966

 

One of science fiction’s most unforgettably haunting and sadly poetic novels.  Charlie Gordon is a middle aged mentally retarded man working as a cleaner in a bakery where he is the butt of many cruel jokes. He finds himself invited to take part in an experiment to boost his intelligence. Tests have already been conducted on a laboratory mouse, called Algernon, who has learned how to negotiate his way through extremely complex mazes.

 

Charlie is encouraged to write progress reports on his reaction to the experiment. His reports begin with child-like writing, full of spelling errors and poor grammar, but as his mind expands, the writing gets more sophisticated and philosophical.

 

Charlie finds that his new intellect frightens people. His fellow workers at the bakery are threatened by his innovations for improving productivity. He is fired.

 

Son, he is even cleverer than the scientists who gave him his break and Charlie recognises the flaws in their research – he knows the new thinking will wear off in Algernon and in himself.

 

Charlie’s emotional development does not improve along with his brainpower. He is fearful of intimacy, and attempts to make love to the girl he most admires frighten him – he has visions of the old, retarded Charlie, watching him in disapproval. Later he has a less problematic affair with a girl in the apartment next door to the one he buys himself.  The detailed sex scenes upset some US American Christians who campaign to have the book banned, and kept off the school and college curriculums.

 

As the expanded intelligence fades in Algernon, the mouse becomes aggressive and lethargic in equal measure and suddenly dies in the midst of a maze, hopelessly lost.  Charlie takes the body home and buries it in his garden, where he puts flowers on its grave regularly. Knowing that he has little time left, Charlie tries to make peace with the mother and sister who hated him in his youth for wetting his pants and in fear that he might molest his sister. The meeting seems initially happy, but in the end his Mother drives him out in anger and fear.

 

Charlie’s own mental deterioration is rapid. He forgets the new languages he learned, and his more sophisticated progress reports are now unreadable to him. His writing style deteriorates to the bad spelling and poor grammar the beginning of the book. He knows he must now be taken away to a special home to be cared for with other mentally ill people – he visited the home earlier in the novel).  His final request is for someone to continue to put flowers on Algernon’s grave; though it’s unlikely this wish will be read or respected.

 

A novel sure to reduce the most cynical hard hearts to floods of tears.

 

Arthur Chappell

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