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The Pickwick Papers
Charles Dickens

3/5: Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, undergoes a radical procedure to bump his intelligence up to genius levels. Only intelligence isn’t all it cracks up to be…

At the start of the book, Charlie starts with the equivalent intelligence of a smart dog. He’s able to understand basic commands – sit, stay, fetch – but has no concept of yesterday or tomorrow or social relationships. He barely remember his parents. There’s no framework for his life apart from today.

Despite this, Charlie is content. You don’t get many fundamentally unhappy dogs, and it doesn’t take much for them to love you. All Charlie wants is for someone to show him some humanity and he’s happy.

And like dogs, some people kick them. Some people set them on fire and laugh while they bite themselves to put it out. I’ve never wanted to smack so many characters in the mouth and tell them to leave Charlie alone. He’s trying his best, damn it!

So many people are jerks in this book that Charlie’s arrogance when he becomes a genius feels semi-justified. He’s only learning from his peers.

When Charlie grows teeth and begins to bite back, his friends don’t like him anymore. The dog bites, take it back to the pound; it’s not amusing when it fights back. There’s an irony that Charlie’s later behaviour to others is the same way they treated him.

This is a book almost entirely about abuse. The doctors who worked on him regard him as a subject and not a human being. His fellow workers at the bakery taunt and tease him. Charlie’s mother threatened to stab him and slapped him when he wet himself or he got an involuntary erection.

Small wonder he can’t function emotionally. His emotional intelligence lacks far behind his intellectual intelligence, and he’s unable to consummate his female relationships except on a purely physical level. The main female characters are practically stereotypes: Miss Conservative and Miss Hussy. Miss Hussy seems to have walked in from Cabaret…I kept seeing her as a 1920s floozy Liza Minelli, not a 1960s liberated woman, which was probably the author’s intent. Although Miss Conservative seems to have no problem having a relationship with a former student. Ahh, the 60s!

And because this was written in the 60s, the terms for Charlie’s mental disability seem pejorative now: He’s a moron, he’s a retard. It belittles Charlie’s inherent kindness and the intelligence he does possess at the start of the story.

Sometimes in a book, you wish the characters were merely fictional. Like the men who abused Bernice, who will sleep with them for a pretty trinket and has three kids by the time she’s eighteen. Like Charlie’s ‘friends’ who think of nothing of kicking his legs out from under him when he falls asleep standing up.

In among all this abuse and degradation there are some sweet spots. The doctor who gives Charlie electro-shock seems compassionate, despite his eye on the dollar in Charlie’s father’s wallet. Burt, who tests Charlie and Algernon the mouse with patience and tolerance. And the entire facility of Warren Hill. Bright spots of the best of humanity on a dark stage.

The last few pages are heart-breaking to read. Only at the end before he slips into senility does Charlie come to his emotional maturity and learns humility isn’t such a bad trait after all. Finally, we can empathise and we can cry over his lost potential. Not just a smart man, but the good man he always was. There are glimpses of the poet and the eloquent man he could have been in his descriptions of New York and the people he meets.

It’s hard to rate this book. On the one hand, most of the people in it are absolute jerks, including Charlie, for most of the story. On the other, Daniel Keyes wrote a book which created characters so awful I wanted to punch them.

This isn’t a book I enjoyed reading. Seeing a character being bullied and abused is hard going. It’s probably a book I’ll never read again. But that doesn’t mean I regret reading it.