Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Book review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Quickie summary: “In this classic story that inspired the hit movie by the same name, Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled adult who cleans floors and toilets, becomes a genius through an experimental operation.”

I never read this in school, as I believe many did, so though I came to understand popular references to the book or film, I still felt like I was lacking in some collective education. One thought that continually ran through my mind as I was reading the story was the question I posed above: could this story be published today and achieve the same critical and cultural success? Keyes aptly (I believe) addresses the treatment of mentally challenged adults by critiquing through Charlie’s eyes both the overt maliciousness and teasing he experienced as well as the more subtle prejudice of the psychologists conducting the experiment, who often treated him more as a lab subject than a full human being, with or without his new “genuis.” Despite that sensitive and thought-provoking content, the beginning and (spoiler?) end of this book are written in the author’s idea of mentally disabled pidgin, and it’s uncomfortable to read, to say the least. Where in overall content and intent, Keyes seems to have hit the right notes, the “retarded” affect seems a bit like crip drag to me, though as I’m not mentally disabled it’s probably not my place to pretend to be an expert here.

The other element that dated the story actually came from Charlie’s “genius” end of the spectrum. Put bluntly, the ruminating he does on psychology and sexuality with his new-found intelligence absolutely SCREAMS 1960′s. In fact, many of these passages reminded me of the pompous blustering performed by Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land, another book where each woman is a different cardboard archetype and sex is a mystical and significant but also, like, totally normal thing, man. As interesting as it was to read along with Charlie as he reaches epiphanies about himself, his relation to others close and distant, and draw hypotheses about humanity as a whole, much of the discussion that didn’t cover Charlie’s direct progress and emotions felt like thinly veiled podiums for the author’s own pedantry.

I can see why this is read in many schools. There is a good message about treating others as you would like to be treated, and a nice cautionary tale about the importance of making sure science has rigorous checks and balances before human experimentation commences (seriously, a sample size of one successful rat does not a completed experiment make.) For me, it wasn’t the top-tier science fiction classic its often made out to be, but you know what they say about mileages varying and all that.

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