Where an amateur attempts at divining somewhat passable insights.
Before seagulls with roiders' arms, Dolly, and Jeff Goldblum arguing about dinosaurs, there was Flowers for Algernon to ask the question: has science gone too far? After Algernon the mouse not only reached the cheese in variously arranged mazes faster than the other mice, but hasn’t for some time seemed about to spontaneously combust or collapse into a black hole, the go-ahead is given for Charlie Gordon, his I.Q. at 60, to undergo surgery to maximize his intelligence. From page one, Daniel Keyes drops us into Charlie’s head, through which we see the world via Charlie’s progress reports recording his day-to-day events and thoughts. It would be nice if, from the outset, Charlie had lived with a loving family. It would be nice if he brought home sweet-smelling bread and cakes he made with best friends who were also his co-workers. It would be nice if, at school, he met with someone pretty he could fall in love with. It would be nice if they all loved him just the way he was, of an intelligence society has agreed to be unworthy of further than a moment’s thought, and they all joined hands together and skipped merrily into the orange-golden sunset towards a happily-ever-after ending. It would be nice. But it would be wishful thinking, realized in some other book written in some other reality that probably no one would read because its niceness clashed with their expectations for plausibility, which Keyes is only too happy to accommodate.
47 years later, 54 if you count the short story that preceded it, Flowers for Algernon’s impact doesn’t seem to have dissipated any. “Hey, since the world’s not depressing enough, if I wanted a book that’d make me ugly-cry to beat Claire Danes, what would you recommend?” After scrolling past the usual Green, Zusak, McCarthy, Orwell, and Dostoyevsky shout-outs, marking a few names to check back on later, Keyes’s mention would invariably rise up to the top to float alongside the rest, his book a tiny, unassuming thing. But the reason I picked Flowers for Algernon was more because it seemed a natural next-read after The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Marcelo in the Real World and 600 Hours of Edward were noticeable blips on my radar, too, yet starting from the beginning felt like the thing to do. Those two books are going to have to wait now¹ because Keyes took my feelings and did a real number on them. My icy thoughts were feeble before the sheer earnestness and circumstances of Charlie Gordon: “I dont care so much about bee-ing famus. I just want to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of frends who like me.” Keyes pulls no punches, as that’s not even twenty pages into the book. It’s hard not to like Charlie, that is, at least as he was in the beginning. By the halfway mark, the book almost soured me on his character when his increased intelligence made him as insufferable as everyone else in the book found him. To better illustrate the progression of my goodwill towards Charlie, here’s a very rough graph I put together in Paint (I’m no Hans Rosling, so have a heart):
At the height of Charlie’s intelligence, he was at his most unlikable. Even when keeping his history in mind, I thought him, as one character² put it, “an arrogant, self-centered, antisocial bastard.” It couldn’t be helped. He didn’t make it easy, what with his condescension (“I've got to guard against the natural tendency to look down on them now that I have surpassed them…” [notwithstanding the fact that he’s a genius]), his jokes (“Just goes to show that you can't have everything you want in one woman. One more argument for polygamy…”), his priorities (“I went home and made love to Fay, but kept thinking of Alice…” [stop stringing her along, dude]), and his stubbornness (“If you don't open the door, I'm going to break it down…” [forget her!]). Near and in the ending, I came to like him again only because he regressed, which I realize is majorly screwed-up. When the book finished, I got to thinking, and then it hit me, the way Keyes so deftly toyed with my emotions. Charlie at his cleverest was unrelatable, but I wasn’t supposed to relate to him. I was acting exactly like Charlie’s co-workers at the bakery when he showed them up, his doctors when he embarrassed them, and Alice and Fay when he confused them. Like them, I didn’t understand Charlie’s intelligence, so I was quick to feel exasperation, resentment, and even some hostility. All that he has experienced is justification enough for how he feels, and Keyes’s writing is very neatly and subtly done to show that. That said, I do still wish humility were a giant tuna with which to knock some sense into him.
Considering its subject matter, and despite its length, Flowers for Algernon is no light read. It would make you think, and then leave you faintly dissatisfied with your conclusions. Is it right for Charlie’s doctors to fiddle around with that which is beyond their comprehension? An answer in the negative comes easily enough to us, but what if they knew what they were doing? It gets murky here. People are going to have opinions and heated words. Take it from me: born with profound deafness and went on the operating table nine years later for a cochlear implant. At that age, I saw it all as fun and games, oblivious to the gravity of the situation. The early scenes of Flowers for Algernon, especially those leading up to Charlie’s surgery and the recovery afterwards, felt oddly familiar. Charlie took to anesthesia (“So I breethed deep and then I gess I was very tired becase I went to sleep…”) much better than I did (I was made to count backwards and then had to be held down three numbers later). There’s a scene where Charlie, at a conference which he headlines, is being paraded out by his doctors in front of a curious audience of scientists. I shared Charlie’s sense of unreality when he heard himself being referred to as if he were not even in the same room. Before I was cleared to receive my implant, I had to be thoroughly assessed and evaluated. My memory here is spotty, so I had no idea the process was so exhaustive until, some years back, I uncovered papers of the doctor’s notes, test results, and evaluation papers packed away in forgotten boxes. From my speaking and language skills (with English being my second language, I knew almost none of it beyond the very basic words gleaned from the Tom and Jerry cartoons) to hearing ability, everything relevant was examined. “James presents with a bilateral severe to profound hearing loss… James gave 17 ‘preferred’ responses and 5 ‘acceptable’ responses…” It’s not a little bizarre to read about yourself observed so clinically. But rather than “delightful,” “social,” and “a pleasure to work with” (not to toot my own horn), Charlie gets called “a feeble-minded shell [and] a burden on the society,” so our situations are unfortunately not quite so comparable. But going back to my original point, my handicap and Charlie’s may be very different, yet there’s arguably no less controversy surrounding cochlear implants, which the deaf culture sees as a threat to their way of life³. “Who's to say that my light is better than your darkness?” It seems so simple to make a snap judgment until you put yourself in their shoes.
If Simba’s shaking Mufasa’s corpse, Macaulay Culkin’s happy encounter with a bee colony in My Girl, every Harry Potter death, what Lotso did to the toys at the garbage dump, and all of Schindler’s List didn’t send my waterworks into overdrive, nothing else will. Sadness is not totally lost on me, however, and Flowers for Algernon packs a mean punch or two that, even when expected, still caught me unawares. Yet there are occasionally light-hearted moments to keep you from descending into complete despair: a scene where Algernon gets a girlfriend Charlie has to decide first to be “of sound health and good moral character” before green-lighting the match is a riot. There’s also a fair bit of philosophizing that narrowly avoids sounding annoying and the occasional surprise of great writing combined with chilling insight, particularly when the book gets into Warren Home School, a mental institution. Keyes points out much in the world that is frustrating: questionable parenting, bullying, and the arrogance and wastefulness of the scientific community (“Papers like these made me angry. Money, time, and energy squandered on the detailed analysis of the trivial...” and “Another case of men devoting their lives to studying more and more about less and less…”). But Keyes keeps returning in the book to society’s treatment (or lack thereof), most of it unthinking, jealous, and cruel, of the mentally challenged. It’s flattering to think of ourselves now as wiser and more magnanimous towards anyone and everyone. That’s a dangerous position to take. Despite our best efforts, prejudices linger, and the uphill battle to stomp them out completely doesn’t look to be leveling out any time soon. “She said for a person who God gave so little to you did more than a lot of people with brains they never even used.” Our denials, no matter how loud, don’t change how there’s that hubris of man, big or small, obvious or dormant, residing in all of us. There’s something wrong with the picture if it’s those of sound mind who need more humanizing than those without, and so long as that remains true, Flowers for Algernon will be a classic. Even if and when the opposite becomes reality, the book will still be invaluable, if not all the more so, for being so honest a cautionary tale.
¹After The Curious Incident and now Flowers for Algernon, I am in dire need of puppies, rainbows, and laughter.
²That one character may be just as much of a bastard, but he’s not that far off the mark.
³The Sound and Fury documentary elaborates more on this issue.