Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Reading group: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Warning: spoiler.

Last month, just before the death of the author Daniel Keyes, we happened to read this, his 1966 novel, much-adapted winner of science-fiction awards and now accepted as a science fiction classic. However, John, who recommended it, said that when he read it years ago he didn't in fact take it as science fiction so much as a psychological study, psychology being a major interest in general in Keyes' work.

The novel consists of the diary entries of Charlie Gordon, a man of 32 with a low IQ who is chosen to take part in an experiment to improve the intellect, involving removal of part of the brain, an operation already carried out with spectacular success on the laboratory mouse Algernon, turning him into a mouse with superb intelligence, able to find his way swiftly through the most complicated maze. The operation on Charlie is successful too, and as the novel proceeds, the diary entries, begun as naive, awkwardly written and badly spelled, become gradually literate and insightful. Charlie's intellectual development, however, reveals the world to him in a different, more jaundiced light: he comes to realise that his bakery workmates have been laughing at him rather than with him, that they were not after all his friends, and as he overtakes them in intellect they begin to resent him, and through this he loses the job he has loved. Eventually he becomes a genius, able quickly to learn many languages and grasp complicated scientific concepts that even the doctors and academics in charge of the experiment don't understand, but his emotional development fails to keep pace, which results in his distress. It is at this point, when Charlie is intellectually lonely (and despising those considered experts) that the mouse Algernon's newly sophisticated faculties begin to falter, and it becomes clear to Charlie that a similar reversal is in store for him. He then devotes himself to investigating the flaws in the experiment before his intellect fails, which it does rapidly, the diary entries quickly returning to their former naivety and lack of literacy.

Most people in the group enjoyed reading the book but it didn't generate any deep discussion. Mark hadn't actually had time to read beyond the early diary entries, but said he really admired the way the author captured the semi-literate voice - 'Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on' - and the gradual way in which the prose style and Charlie's consciousness develop. The chief question the book seemed to be posing, people said, was whether intelligence makes you happy (or whether, as Thomas Gray put it, 'where ignorance is bliss 'tis folly to be wise'), which was considered an unoriginal point, Doug being pretty scathing about it, in fact. Someone pointed out that it was also about whether we should value intellectual intelligence over emotional intelligence as we do, a more subtle and important point, and the question of what it is to be human. John said that it was in addition about the morality of using science and technology to interfere with someone's personality - another important and prescient point. He pointed to the memories that Charlie begins to retrieve about his mother, and Charlie's gradual realisation that she rejected him out of an inability to accept his disabilities. The book thus, by implication, questions a similar prejudice and desire for perfection motivating much medical research. The choice of the diary form perhaps points to a concern with the extent to which attention is or isn't paid to the subjective experience of human subjects in clinical trials. In the book, John pointed out, the only people with real empathy with those with disability are those with disabilities themselves. (On the other hand, John, a child psychologist, told us a very interesting fact. We discover in passing that Charlie's condition is phenylketonuria, a congenital metabolic deficiency which if left untreated in infancy causes mental developmental difficulties, but for which, John explained, there is now a diet treatment which is in effect a cure, since patients treated in infancy and childhood no longer in adulthood suffer the metabolic deficiency with which they were born and are therefore no longer in danger of the same mental disintegration.)

Since the ending of the book is not happy, John said, it serves as a warning, but we all felt that the same effect could have been achieved without actually taking us through the reversal in Charlie's intelligence, which is predictable and thus boring. Indeed, John suggested, the book would have been better, and more emotionally affecting for the reader, if it had ended at the point where the highly intelligent and emotional Charlie is facing his doomed fate, rather than descending with him into affectlessness and lack of awareness or concern about anything much.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

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