Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Indigo 1996 paperback, £5.99
(Some may consider what follows contains mild spoilers for the novel's outcome.)
Flowers for Algernon is the story of Charlie, a simple bakery assistant who is selected for a radical new surgery. The experimental operation he undergoes is designed to improve his intelligence.
The book takes the form of Charlie's journal, and the narrative is therefore entirely first-person. Keyes has taken a single, simple science-fictional idea -- the 'what if?' -- and applied it to human intelligence. What if a man's intelligence were to be radically improved, from lowly but contented simpleton, to incisive but emotionally inexperienced near-genius?
Charlie tells us his story with disarming frankness, his written style transforming before our eyes as the results of the operation take effect. His emerging intelligence is visible on the page.
From an educationally sub-normal menial worker, lacking social skills and self-esteem, Charlie matures into an outwardly self-assured, articulate man. But he lives constantly with the threat that his artificially accelerated intelligence might desert him.
It's a deeply moving story, which touches many of our contemporary concerns, despite being first published in 1959: the ethics of human experimentation; the essence of self; the issue of informed consent. It's also an intensely personal story. We see everything through Charlie's eyes, and we sympathise as the people around him react very differently during his metamorphosis.
Flowers for Algernon is a novel of change, and of stasis. The inevitable end -- more a reversal than a climax -- leaves one aching for a different outcome, knowing that such an outcome is impossible.
Copyright © 1998 Paul S. Jenkins
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