Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon is a quite different SF book to anything else I’ve read so far, I think in that it’s entirely contemporary (written in the 1960s) except for the single SF conceit at its heart; and also that its concern is largely with human psychology.

The SF conceit here is that a new operation has been developed which can make people more intelligent. This technique has been tried on mice, and now it is being trialled on the first human being, a man called Charlie who has what we would now term learning difficulties.

As part of the experiment, Charlie keeps a diary – which forms our novel. He starts off barely able to write; but as the treatment goes on, this improves. – Straightaway I see the potential for this in terms of novelistic form and style: we start off something akin to the first part of As I Lay Dying, and end up with him writing like Proust, or I don’t know, Martin Heideigger; – but sadly Daniel Keyes doesn’t take it that far, contenting himself after the first part with the standard simple English of most novels.

Charlie was ignorantly happy in his life before the experiment, but as he develops he begins to see a) that the people he thought were his friends back then were mocking him; and b) now that he’s actually more intelligent than everyone else, he still can’t really relate to people. Also, his emotional development doesn’t mirror his intellectual development – although this is an area again which I feel has much greater possibilities than those explored in the novel. Although it’s a broad statement, I’ve always felt there’s a gulf between SF writers and literary writers in their human understanding; and I sense with this novel, issues in human development are not wholly thought through. That he reads say Dostoevsky is linked to his intellectual development; but novels, it seems to me, are not really intellectual – there are much more to do with your understanding of society and your own emotions; and if these areas of his life are underdeveloped, what will he find of worth in Dostoevsky? See also Frankenstein no doubt (doesn’t the monster read Paradise Lost?), which this novel at times resembles.

There seemed a lot of other problems with this novel too: the attitude of the scientists towards Charlie, and the way they talk about him even when present, seemed to my mind unlikely (unless one were to suppose scientists too entirely without a sense of human understanding), and largely just a plot trigger; and the inherent problem of portraying someone whose intellectual capacity is way beyond any other human was not, I felt, sufficiently avoided by the author (hard, I suppose, in a first person narrative). Also, the flash-backs to his former life I began to find tedious; but for all this in general I found it an interesting book.

Advertisements