17 March, 2012

Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

Read This Book.

Sci-fi, in the general use of the term, is not something I am generally partial to. I like Doctor Who, and Primeval, because they are good stories with good characters, which HAPPEN to include sci-fi elements, without being reliant upon them. Keye's 'Flowers for Algernon' is another such creation - pigeonholed as sci-fi, but is so much more. The story is a love story, a classic tragedy and a thriller. It is excellent.

The story follows Charlie Gordon, IQ of 68, as he undergoes experimental surgery to improve his intelligence. The book's language use incorporates the technical aspects of his transformation, and the emotional resonance of such an impactful surgery. Keyes' use of language follows Gordon from his almost-illiterate beginnings through his ascension through literacy. The use of spelling, punctuation and grammar create a character whose intelligence alters, but who resonates distinctly as the same person throughout.

The novel's most interesting motif is that of light and dark, which plays seamlessly into the novel's overwhelming use of doubles. In that it plays out as a tragedy, a comedy and psychological thriller, it also merges Gothic elements reminiscent of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The idea of a 'dark cell' and a 'cave' along with the light, the idea of entering the light, of acquiring intelligence and of loving, contrast throughout the novel. But interestingly, the epitaphs of lightness and dark are transferred between different contrasts, leaving us with the question of just how enlightened we are by our intelligence, and our emotional intelligence. The idea of former and present attitudes to intelligence resonates in Keyes' ideas on the mal-treatment of the mentally disabled and his mother's strong opinions on asylums. The relentless Adam, Eve and Eden references talk about the boundaries of humanity but also reference changing attitudes - the church continues to change and adapt, and we do, but as is evident in the recent gay marriage debate, at different speeds and in differing directions. Keyes seems to make the point that there is no one objective 'word' on any one subject.

Literally all the covers are disgusting.
Doubling continues as a technique in a war between new Charlie and old Charlie, through which elements of the past and future are present for both, wherein we are never clearly the nature of old Charlie's presence in new Charlie's life. The idea of motherhood, family and the past give us a sense of just how much one can be tied to their past, and the transient nature of change. In the sense of a thriller, there is a momentum in the last third of the book, of hurtling towards a climax, a war between the new and the old.

The tragic nature of the story is what fascinated me most. The story fits into the classic Tragic conventions, but subverts them (arguably, Charlie becomes great, not just has potential to), and the tragic nature is compounded by the fact that Charlie rises, then falls to where he began, not further down. To see the blessing of intelligence handed out but then ripped from him, and to see him becoming acutely less aware of what is happening to him, is tragic, and plays with the very nature of perceptions of intelligence and emotion.

This is hilarious if you've read it. If not, SPOILER WARNINGS.

The story is inextricably linked to sex, love, tragedy, intelligence and humanity. The boundaries of science versus the natural world and musings on the ultimate weakness of the human race are plentiful in the book. The title might not seem clear until the end of the novel, but when you read the final lines of this book, you'll probably be deeply moved, absorbed, and fascinated by this wonderful book, which is excellently poignant for the current era.

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