The classic novel about a daring experiment in human intelligence Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, is a floor sweeper and the gentle butt of everyone’s jokes – until an experiment in the enhancement of human intelligence turns him into a genius. But then Algernon, the mouse whose triumphal experimental transformation preceded his, fades and dies, and Charlie has to face the possibility that his salvation was only temporary.
Y’know, I’m ever so slightly concerned that the list creatively entitled ‘Jazz’s Top Reads of 2017’ is filled with books I wouldn’t have even considered reading if it hadn’t been for the recommendations of friends. Flowers for Algernon is one such book. It’s a relatively short novel, totaling a mere 216 pages, but, man, do those pages pack a punch! Flowers for Algernon is a book that has a number of important ideas lacing its words and these ideas are still relevant today, 58 years later (see, I can math!), making it something I recommend to all readers, regardless of preferred genre.
Flowers for Algernon is written from a first person perspective and our narrator is Charlie Gordon, a young man who chronicles his experiences through a written progress report which we, the readers, are reading. I found this method of narration extremely effective for a number of reasons. Firstly, the first few progress reports are written in a way that makes you truly feel as though you are reading the report entries of a man with an IQ of 68. The spelling is often incorrect, there’s no grammar and it’s difficult to understand. The latter point especially conveys the difficulties Charlie initially has with communicating with those around him and, as a result, a reader’s sympathy is immediately evoked. Furthermore, following Charlie’s operation, we see the quality of writing improving and it creates this sense that you and Charlie are one and the same almost, experiencing this often traumatic journey side-by-side and in real time. For me, this meant I connected to Charlie and this is what made it such an engaging and emotive read for me.
I found Flowers for Algernon to be an interesting exploration into the way in which people with mental and learning disabilities are treated in society. We need only look to recent cases of discrimination – such as a 2016 case in which a dyslexic Starbucks employee was left feeling suicidal after being given lesser duties due to difficulties with reading and writing – to see that this is still very much a problem in modern day society. Charlie is frequently talked about as though he’s just the result of an experiment and wasn’t a person in and of himself prior to his operation. He’s mocked, he’s patronised and often faced physical abuse as a child simply for being who he was. Why is Charlie treated like this when he’s a person with an IQ of 68, yet not when he’s a so-called ‘genius’? Can a person’s ill treatment be justified by their apparently low intelligence? No, of course not. Such treatment is immoral and inhumane and Flowers for Algernon seeks to make readers understand that. Each and every one of us is a person, regardless of our intelligence or ability.
Before his operation, Charlie is beyond excited to become smart and to be able to read and write like other people. This excitement makes later scenes all the more heartbreaking. Charlie truly believes he’ll be happier when he’s academically intelligent and the truth is, he’s simply not. At the beginning of the novel, although he has a low IQ, Charlie is kind, gentle and friendly to all he meets. After the operation, he becomes something other, something other than Charlie. He loses himself in the process and Charlie’s experience serves as a lesson to us all; sometimes – not all the time, admittedly – we don’t see what we have until we don’t have it anymore.
Flowers for Algernon is heartbreakingly beautiful and, as I said at the beginning of this review, has found its way onto my top reads of 2017 list.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Song: Keaton Henson’s You don’t know how lucky you are (get the tissues ready, guys)
This book is available on Amazon in both e-reader and paperback format.