Monday, December 7, 2015

Flowers for Algernon (Novel) Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Daniel Keyes
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Standalone
Pages: 311

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Flowers for Algernon is a science fiction short-story, that was later turned into a novel by Daniel Keyes.  The novel, which is being reviewed here, is told from the perspective of a mentally challenged narrator, Charlie Gordon, who explains how he becomes a genius through a radical new experiment.

Flowers for Algernon explores issues such as the mistreatment of the mentally challenged by the mentally able, and it explores the inherent conflict between a person’s emotions and intellect.

The novel expands upon the short story and draws out the events of Charlie’s time transitioning from a mentally challenged person to a genius.  The short story which is absolutely flawless, unfortunately, doesn’t translate as well into a novel.  With a strong beginning and ending, the book is saved, but the middle drags, leaving readers wondering why Flowers for Algernon was ever expanded into a full length book.

Flowers for Algernon tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a mentally challenged man with phenylketonuria, which causes him to have an I.Q. of 68.  Charlie decides to participate in a new experiment that is designed to increase his intelligence.  The experiment has promise, as it had been successfully tested on a lab mouse named Algernon, who saw great improvements to his mental capabilities.

After Charlie participates in the experiment his intelligence begins to increase slowly but surely.  Eventually his intellect grows to a point where he is easily considered a genius.  Right as he reaches the peak of his intelligence, Charlie realizes that Algernon’s intelligence has gone into a steep decline.  Charlie now has to find out what went wrong in the experiment in order to prevent himself from returning to his previous mentally challenged state.

Flowers for Algernon is one of the most emotionally powerful stories written in the science fiction genre.  Keyes exploration of the mentally challenged leaves readers witnessing the difficulties presented by being mentally challenged, and it shows how mentally challenged people can be treated kindly by some people, but cruelly by most people in the outside world.

The novel is told in the form of first person journal entries, written by Charlie.  The journal entries show a day-by-day replay of how the experiment increases his intelligence.  Towards the beginning of the novel, Charlie frequently misspells words, uses poor grammar, uses small words, and structures sentences in ways that are often confusing to the reader.  As the experiment progresses, these grammatical errors begin to disappear, and a more intelligent sounding Charlie Gordon takes hold of the story.

As Charlie begins to gain intelligence he can now clearly see the motives behind a lot of the people that were previously involved with his life.  Some of these people were genuinely trying to help him, while others were maliciously laughing behind his back.  Knowing this now, Charlie begins to find it difficult to trust people, and he starts to grow more isolated.

Ironically, Charlie who believes that he would fit in better and be more accepted by society if he were more intelligent, discovers that once he reaches the genius level, he is more isolated than ever.
Compared to the short story the novel adds more sequences with Charlie once he reaches his peak intelligence.  These extra pages are mostly added to explore the idea of how being a genius can isolate a person and how the ideas of intellect and emotion create tension in a person’s existence.  Unfortunately, these added pages lack the emotional power of the scenes that were just in the short story, making the novel adaption of Flowers for Algernon less powerful.

The raw pathos and the journey Charlie undertakes at the beginning of the novel, diminishes in the middle of the novel, and adds very a little to a short story that gave so much.  Ultimately the beginning and ending save the novel, and conclude it in a way that is acceptable.  But the short story is about as flawless as stories come, and as a result the Flowers for Algernon short story comes a lot more highly recommended to readers than the novel.

Score: 8.7

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