There’s something about chasing white animals down untrodden paths that seems to lead to wonderful places.
In Daniel Keyes’ novel, extended from a short story of the same name, Charlie Gordon’s diary entries gradually reveal the journey undertaken as he has a revolutionary surgical procedure performed to increase his intelligence from an IQ of 68 to 185. This is only deemed possible because of the apparent success of the method on a white laboratory mouse called Algernon, who can now solve mazes faster than humans, and for whom Charlie develops a touching respect and fondness.
Now, thanks to an Irish grandfather with an unshakeable commitment to the oral tradition, I’ve had a special love for epic literature since well before I could read, but despite sailing across myth and legend with Homer’s Odysseus, crawling into Mordor with Tolkien’s Hobbits and even falling from grace with Milton’s Lucifer, I have never before been on a journey as epic as Charlie’s. As his intelligence slowly begins to creep up, each IQ point feels like a step into another world, or to labour the opening line’s metaphor, down a rabbit hole.
The choice of Charlie’s diary as a narrative device is inspired, as we only ever get to see events from inside his head, indeed there are several sets of ‘progress reports’ to get through before Charlie even begins writing in what we would recognise as adult sentences. This creates a dynamic relationship between narrator and audience as we go from being his intellectual superiors, feeling the sadness of realising long before he does that he is nothing more than a freakish amusement to his ‘friends’, to feeling judged, almost pitied, by Charlie for our inability to understand the world at his 185 IQ level. (Although if your IQ is 200+ this neat inversion may be lost on you).
Sadly though, as a city of equine carpentry beneficiaries, nine mortal men and a biblical scrumping duo would attest, gifts rarely come without a price and this story is no different in that regard. After the initial joy of Charlie’s innate desire to improve himself finally being rewarded, it becomes apparent that his emotional state will struggle to follow. Relationships cannot be sustained as his intellect powers away from those around him and he soon finds himself experiencing the same frustrations and intolerance towards others that he was once the victim of. It is a very clever facet of this book that we are led to abhor the dehumanisation of the mentally retarded, but at the same time understand why the hubris of effortless superiority is so easy a temptation to fall into.
This conflict between emotion and intelligence reaches a crescendo in the chilling ‘Progress Report 12′ where Charlie tells us that his savant-like genius has destroyed the love he felt for his old reading teacher at the school for retarded adults, Alice Kinnian. At this stage it is difficult not find yourself wondering if the strange nurse who ranted about the evils of ‘playing god’ to an incomprehending Charlie soon after his operation may not have had a point after all.
Gradually though, Charlie begins to adapt to his mind. A symbolic act of rebellion whereby he steals the eponymous Algernon from the laboratory and takes him home to live with him marks his refusal to be treated as an experiment any longer and slowly he builds himself a life.
Tragically, it is just as Charlie starts to make progress in coming to terms with his psychological reaction to the changes that Algernon begins to show signs of mental regression. He is no longer able to solve his mazes as quickly and over time becomes more and more unstable as his intelligence diminishes. Charlie knows full well that where Algernon the mouse goes, he cannot but follow.
It is at this grim turning point that I will stop recounting specific events for fear of ruining the story; however, suffice it to say that the way back is a bittersweet masterpiece. The fleeting redemption of Charlie’s feelings for Alice are described in a page-long meditation on the nature of love that will tear your heart out. Indeed it is Alice who is left with the last bequest of Charlie’s journey before he can barely remember himself – that someone takes up the duty of putting flowers on Algernon’s grave.
So that he was more than just a forgotten experiment.
Like all great science-fiction books Flowers for Algernon is a philosophical treatise in disguise. The greater part of my relationship with this novel has not been in the reading, but in the hours of thought it has provoked. So rapid are the changes in Charlie and so different is he from one page to the next that Heraclitus’ old observation…
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man”
…seems almost so obvious as to be banal. Charlie has the same body from start to finish, but is he the same person from start to finish? Are any of us the same person from one day to the next? In a world where feelings and emotions can be induced, controlled or understood as the product of scientific mapping of the mind, can such concepts as the self and even the idea of a soul endure? The debate is a maze even Algernon at his height could not solve, but, like this book, the fun is in the journey.
By day Ibar works for Heathrow Airport in a fairly mundane capacity as a Risk Management expert, however (also by day) he is the co-founder of the secretive, subterranean literary movement 'The Weird Book Club' which aims to:
a) Identify the best reads available,
b) Get a bookshop in Terminal 5 which sells something other than Dan Brown and Robert Ludlum,
c) Find a 3rd member
By night Ibar mostly sleeps...mostly.