There's very little I knew about Flowers for Algernon before I started it. I had heard about this book a lot without really registering what it was about. And then, when I was browsing through a bookstore, I saw this book on the science fiction shelves, decided it will be a good read for the husband, decided further that it will be a good read for me as well, then (and only then) did a quick glance of the synopsis to make sure it wasn't scifi erotica before buying it.
It probably would have stayed in my bookshelves for a long time, if Care didn't suggest doing a readalong (thank you, Care!).
This past weekend, I just stopped at the halfway point in the book and decided I need to type up this post before I continued reading it.
I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.
What I thought the book was about...
I thought this book was about some kind of experiment gone wrong, in a weird Frankenstein-ish way. It was in the science fiction section after all. The husband prefers books that are plot-oriented. Stuff should keep happening, if not in every page, then in every other page. That's what I imagined this book to be.
What this book really was like...
Sure, stuff happens. But slowly. Gradually. You need to look for the changes. If you read it without really absorbing what you are reading, Charlie grows up right before your eyes and you won't know the difference. But this book is more about
- how people treat mentally challenged people,
- how you could be building a cure for something but deep in your heart, you aren't concerned about the people who could benefit from the cure, but rather you are just worried about your own ego and reputation.
First, a brief summary...
Charlie is a mentally challenged 32-year old who was selected to be the human guinea pig for a very ambitious experiment, which had previously been tested only on animals of lesser intelligence. In fact, the only animal they constantly mention is Algernon, a white mouse, who transformed from its usual mousely abilities to a kind of supermouse that could solve mazes very quickly.
Charlie happens to want very badly to be smart - a result of childhood neglect and trauma. During his childhood, his mother refused to believe that Charlie needed special care and instead drove him to great lengths that only resulted in a lot of heartbreak and tears for all involved.
Its easy to make frends if you let pepul laff at you.
Halfway Point Thoughts (some spoilers follow)...
Flowers for Algernon is essentially an epistolary novel, with Charlie writing (almost) daily reports on his thoughts, fears, anticipations, and experiences. His posts before the treatment and a few after, are drizzled with poor grammer, spelling mistakes, and overall poor sentence contructions. But more notably, these reports are also peppered with a very naive and optimistic perception of the world he inhabits. He considers his colleagues to be very good friends of his, even though all they do is mock him consistently and make him the scapegoat of mean jokes.
Honestly, at the halfway point, I am a little torn about what I feel for Charlie. Charlie is really the epitome of many kinds of people in this world. He starts off naive and innocent, like a child eager to please his elders. He doesn't question others' motivations or suspect anyone of not being a good person. As he begins to get smarter, he is an enthusiastic student, excited to learn and interact with everyone on a more adult-level. But his intelligence keeps growing - it hasn't yet tapered off. He has gone from an IQ of 68 to one of 185. At this point, he has become more arrogant and condescending. He looks down on all experts because they only really know a part of their field well and don't share his knowledge of an entire huge field. He is even more ashamed that the people who were treating him aren't as knowledgeable as he once thought them to be.
It's amazing how the author can make you feel ambivalent (within the span of a few pages) about a first-person narrator who isn't really being nasty and who has suffered enough. I believe Daniel Keyes wanted readers to not identify with Charlie but with his associates - the now-lesser intelligent people.
Because of how Charlie's posts transition from something akin to being written by a child to one that could be written by a Professor, my reading pace also followed that change. It was very easy to read his posts at first, then it got more thought-provoking and finally a little hard (though not very hard - it's still a fast-paced book). By the halfway point, it doesn't make sense to just breeze through the pages. Charlie's thought processes are very intense and he catches on to facts very fast.
While his IQ has been going off the charts, his emotional quotient has been poor. He has not been able to mature fast enough to understand everything he is learning. His people-interactions remain limited - he is like an adolescent trapped in a highly intelligent body. He doesn't know how to interact with women or understand why people have different intelligence levels, despite he himself being a little poor on the smartness scale only a few months back.
How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes—how such people think nothing of abusing a man with low intelligence.
I cannot wait to go back to the book. The Introduction in my copy pretty much gives away what happens, so I am somewhat bummed by that. (Spoilery Introductions should be at the end of the book not the beginning - not everyone has read these classics in school.) But it's still a riveting book. Funnily, throughout this book, I was strongly reminded of The Curiosity by Stephen Kiernan, which tried to share some pretty much similar themes.