Flowers for Algernon is a strange little novel, and one that has been scraping around near the bottom of my reading list for a long time. Then not too long ago I finally picked up a copy, and breezed through it at an unusually quick pace. Thus here I am, reviewing something I thought I probably wouldn’t touch for at least another decade. Flowers for Algernon is a short but simple novel revolving around the story of Charlie Gordon, a floor sweeper at Donner’s Bakery born with subnormal intelligence. He is brought into an experiment on human intelligence, where he is subject to a procedure which increases his intelligence. The process is documented through a series of progress reports, written by Charlie throughout the course of the novel. The process seems to be a success at first, but things soon start to go wrong and the now intelligent Charlie dreads returning to his original self.
The novel is told through diary entries, labelled as progress reports intended for use by the people behind the experiment. The narrative flows in a stream of consciousness manner, especially early on when Charlie isn’t too bright. Charlie’s lack of intelligence is shown through bad spelling and grammar. This was something that I considered a brave literary tactic, since logic dictates that bad spelling would be off putting to the reader but since the character writing can’t spell it gives the work an extra layer of immersive reading and I’ll admit there were times where it was quite easy to forget that Charlie was even a fictional character, something which rarely happens to me when reading a novel.
I enjoyed Charlie as a character, and I felt like he was very interesting psychologically. Most notably is how the intelligent Charlie views his previous self as a different person, frequently viewing himself as a different person borrowing the old Charlie Gordon’s body. This viewpoint becomes more and more pronounced as the novel progresses, especially once the smart Charlie becomes aware that his condition is going to deteriorate. The novel goes out of its way to show that intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean emotional maturity, which is something I found to be a logical addition to a person like Charlie suddenly gaining intelligence. Despite his growing intelligence Charlie is shown to struggle with the consequences of having intelligence, and a lot of the conflict revolves around the fallout of him not realising the effects his intelligence is having on those around him. It showed that he still had to learn some things, even with his increasing intelligence, and that was something I loved about him as a character.
I can’t say there is a lot that can be said negatively. I felt like his relationships within the novel were rather clumsily handled and I found myself questioning whether he would enter a relationship within anyone during the course of the novel, as I would personally believe that even with his increased intelligence he would have to go through some sort of second puberty. I would personally assume that the process would take several years, and thus I found myself wondering if it was unrealistic for Charlie to not only understand sexual relationships on a theoretical level within the space of several months but also have one during this time. Yet as a work of science fiction, this is something that could easily be handwaved as an effect of the operation and thus it didn’t bug me too much.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Flowers for Algernon, and it made me sad that Charlie ultimately lost his intelligence, even though he did his best to try and keep it. At its core the story is one I would class as a science fiction story, but it is a very low key one and the work ultimately focuses on the personal relationships between Charlie and the rest of the cast. This is a very literary science fiction novel, in part because of the epistolary format presented by Charlie’s progress reports and this is one of the reasons why I liked to read it so much. A truly great novel and one I would almost certainly read again.
IN A WORD: HEARTRENDING