Rating: ★ ★ – – –
Flowers for Algernon is a seminal work, not only of science fiction but of fiction in general. It is written in the form of the diary of a mentally retarded man, Charlie Gordon, who starts out with an IQ of 70 and then goes through an experimental procedure which temporarily raises his IQ to a genius level of over 180.
This is a great premise and Keyes tells the story well. The book allows you to look into the mind of someone you wouldn’t normally understand and see him as an equal.
Charlie originally works as a janitor in a bakery and thinks everyone there is his friend. As he grows more intelligent, he realizes that his co-workers have actually been ridiculing him and making him the butt of their jokes the whole time.
And he realizes that the scientists experimenting with him see him only as an object, as something they’ve created. “It’s frightening to realize,” he says, “that my fate is in the hands of men who are not the giants I once thought them to be, men who don’t know all the answers.”
Not only is this extremely upsetting to him, but it is also threatening to the people around him. His relationship with his experimenters becomes increasingly hostile. His co-workers turn against him and petition to have him fired. He realizes that:
“It had been alright as long as they could laugh at me and appear clever at my expense, but now they were feeling inferior to the moron. I began to see that by my astonishing growth I had made them shrink and emphasized their inadequacies. I had betrayed them, and they hated me for it.”He has had to grow up and learn, as we all do, that our revered authority figures are only human. And he’s had to compress that whole process into just a few months.
I quite appreciate the pain of this disillusionment. Unfortunately, however, there were two major things that turned me off about this book.
The first was that I didn’t like the characters very much. Not Charlie Gordon, or the scientists experimenting on him, or his sympathetic teacher Miss Kinnian, or his co-workers in the bakery. They seemed (respectively) cold and arrogant, self-centered, dippy, and mean.
The second was the omnipresent, kitschy 1950s-era psychology. Charlie’s post-experimental monitoring is full of Rorschach tests, dream therapy, and the use of free association to “remove mental barriers.” During key moments of change, instead of explaining what is happening to him in any accessible way, Charlie tends to go into trippy meditative trances complete with shimmering flowers and balls of light and mental voyages into the universe.
The Speed of Dark, which came out in 2003, was consciously modeled after Flowers for Algernon but I liked it much more. The autistic man who was The Speed of Dark’s main character had compatriots, autistic co-workers coping with their own challenges in their own ways. The key non-autistic people in his life were more interesting. The interactions he had with minor characters – a policeman, his landlady, his mechanic, people in his fencing class – were human and subtle. And his inner thoughts were always comprehensible, even as panicky as they sometimes were.
Algernon was originally published as a short story in 1959 and I actually think that the shorter version is better. Perhaps because it necessarily has to focus on the central plot and doesn’t have as much time to expose the characters or to get into wacky psycho-pop.