|FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON by Daniel Keyes|
Orig. Published 1966 by Harcourt
ISBN: 0-553-27450-3 Harcourt paperback
ISBN: 0-151-00163-4 Harcourt Brace hardcover
Reviewed November 12, 1998
Simply put, this is the most thoroughly enjoyable book I have ever read.
This novel is the story of Charlie Gordon, a retarded man in his thirties who undergoes an experimental surgery intended to increase his intelligence. Daniel Keyes chose, brilliantly, to tell this story in the first person, through a series of "progris riports" written by Charlie himself as part of the experiment. By means of this literary device, the reader is able to watch his intellectual progress as he advances -- first subtly, then more and more dramatically.
There is a powerful parallel between Charlie as an idiot and Charlie as a genius. At the beginning of the book, it is clear that his co-workers at the bakery where he works are often mean to him, but he has no understanding that they are laughing at his expense, and believes that they are just his good friends. He is separated by a barrier of intelligence. The first true sign of his intellectual development is his slow realization of the truth, and he is shocked by what he learns as he approaches and ultimately surpasses their level. He enjoys a brief time as a "normal" person, but quickly moves far beyond the intelligence of those around him, including the very scientists who developed the procedure. He is soon separated by another barrier of intelligence: a super-genius surrounded by a world of relative idiots.
Beyond this transformation, Charlie must also deal with the conflagration of newfound emotion, as he is for the first time in his life able to make a direct connection with another person, and falls in love. This proves overwhelming for a man who has lived his entire life with nothing more than the wide-open emotional experience of a child. Even as he learns multiple languages and becomes one of the main researchers in his own experiment, he struggles with a paralytic anxiety over women. Added to this mix is the struggle to reach some sort of peace with his parents, and the memory of their efforts to make a "normal" child of him.
This is a powerful, thought-provoking, and ultimately tragic book, and a telling examination of human nature and the nature of human intellect. It is an excellent story, beautifully told.