Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

Nine stars

This story by Daniel Keyes means a great deal to me, though I have never read it. In fact, my introduction to Charlie Gordon and Algernon came from seeing the stage play of this novel many years ago. It holds a number of personal memories for me that go beyond the story or its characters. To have finally read Daniel Keyes’ piece has brought things full circle and I cannot say enough about the piece. When a man with intellectual disabilities (not the word Keyes uses, but I will keep it politically correct) is experimented upon to increase his IQ, things change drastically for Charlie Gordon, as well as the lab mouse, Algernon. Charlie sees a new self after a major operation, though this new intelligence comes at major costs, to both man and beast. A sentimental journey that is sure to touch the heart of many readers.

Charlie Gordon loves his life, at least what he knows of it. Born with intellectual disabilities, he has been living in a facility, away from his family, for many years, holding down a basic job in a bakery. When he is chosen to take part in a highly experimental surgery to increase his intellectual capacity, Charlie is not sure what to expect. Both Charlie and a lab mouse, Algernon, are set to undergo a procedure and have their intelligence monitored through a series of tests. Charlie will also be journaling his experiences, as best he can.

While there is some confusion on Charlie’s part in the pre-surgery period, he is excited about being able to ‘get smart’ and hopes the process will work. After a gruelling operation, Charlie wonders why he is not instantly different, forced to wait for progress. Using technology of the day, Charlie is able to coax his brain to open like a budding flower, soon beating Algernon in tests that were once seen to be much too difficult.

While Charlie gains intelligence, he realises that those around him no longer see him in the same way. He is no longer treated like the ‘dimwit’, though this has polarising results depending on his social circle. Charlie is soon absorbing topics that were once though impossible and takes a keen understanding in the science behind his own advancements. All the while, he is discovering the world in new and adult ways, from love to sex and even the nuances of daily conversations.

While the intelligence pushes him to genius-levels, Charlie soon has a raging epiphany, both about his past and the future he has forged for himself. Charlie Gordon may be much smarter than he was, but he is also a different man and not one he always enjoys. When changes in Algernon occur, Charlie is left to wonder if this is a harbinger of things to come. Has Charlie Gordon finally become intelligent enough to see how easy life was before, when he did not know any better?

As I said above, there are many emotional ties this story brings to the surface for me. I knew the premise going into this reading journey, though some of the parts of the novel that were not addressed in the stage play kept me riveted to see how things would end. Daniel Keyes writes a poignant novel about a man’s increased self-awareness and how that can be the root of all trouble, loosely paralleling the biblical Garden of Eden. The struggle to become better should not always run parallel with one’s heightened intelligence.

Charlie Gordon is a stunning protagonist throughout this piece. The reader is easily able to see his progression, as much of the book is told through his eyes. Charlie’s simpler beginnings may have been fraught with teasing and suffering, but they were also less complex. The ‘ignorance is bliss’ approach recurs throughout this piece, which helps echo themes for the reader. There is much personal and character growth in this book, sure to touch the reader in some form or another. Charlie’s journey is central to the story and the reader is there for the entire ride.

Keyes uses a strong collection of characters to bridge all of Charlie’s feelings throughout. Filling the narrative with key actors who not only flavour the piece, but help Charlie see who is was/is/will be is key to Keyes’ ongoing plot development. Some characters will anger the reader while others will soon become favourites, but there is a central theme that runs throughout the book; Charlie’s influence on them changes with added intelligence, and not always for the better.

This is a touching story about a man who is both test subject and experimenter, seeing his life literally change before him. The narrative depicts the struggles that are overcome when a man has a life-changing surgery, only to find new ones emerge and added hurdles brought into his way. Raw and honest throughout, the writing is reflective of Charlie’s change from the opening sentences until the final paragraph of this well-crafted book. With a mix of narrative, progress reports, and personal insights by Charlie Gordon, the reader can see the peaks and valleys before the truth comes to pass and everything connects. Daniel Keyes does a masterful job throughout, keeping the reader wondering what will become of Charlie Gordon and how his personal insights will come to shape the man he has become. Stunning and a must-read for anyone seeking something introspective.

Kudos, Mr. Keyes, for a book that will stick with me forever. I wish I had read this sooner, though the personal connection remains strong for me all those years later.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: