Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is a Hugo Award winning short (Best Short Story 1960) and Nebula Award winning novel (Joint Best Novel 1966).
This is the touching story of Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled 32 year old, working a menial job in a bakery who is given the opportunity to undergo surgery and significantly improve his mental and intellectual capabilities.
Charlie’s intellectual growth is fraught with heartache and tragedy as his emotional development lags far behind his intellectual growth. Keyes firmly placing the reader in Charlie’s skin, delivering the story in a personally engaging epistolary style via Charlie’s diary updates.
The titular character Algernon is a mouse and the first succesful test subject for the surgery which Charlie undergoes. Charlie forms a growing bond with Algernon throughout the story leading to the eventual whisking of Algernon away from the laboratory in an act of frustration. Through Algernon’s deteriorating behaviour Charlie comes to realise his increased intelligence is only temporary and that this new persona will disappear with his intellect with the full consequences obvious to the new intellectualized Charlie. The slow withdrawal of the new Charlie Gordon is a powerful statement on consciousness and identity and Keyes explores these themes with an almost squirmingly embarrassing focus. The new Charlie Gordon, despite his brilliance, or maybe because of the view his brilliance gives him, seems hard and cold where the old Charlie was soft and warm.
Rocks are overturned and unpleasantness is left trying to crawl back into the dark places, with sexuality, treatment of the mentally disabled and repressed memory all being explored. Keyes makes the reader feel they are probing their gums where a now absent tooth used to be, painful in memory but somehow soothing to caress the source. Through Charlie’s awkward social interactions with his family and friends, Keyes weaves together an emotionally convincing tale which really cuts to the truth about how we reconcile intelligence with emotion and what it means to be who we are. Flowers for Algernon forces you to ask uncomfortable questions about yourself and the way you treat and view other people, it is a timeless classic and feels completely relevant today having never been out of print.
I would recommend this book to everybody, it is a completely human story desite being named after a mouse.
“P.S. please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.” – Charlie Gordon