Monday, June 16, 2014

Book Review: Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algermon

Written as a first person narrative, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algermon confronts an age old, yet poignant question of to what lengths should man go to control nature and play God. The text is presented through the filter of Charlie Gordon, a thirty something cast off from society. Charlie, who suffers from a form of mental retardation severe enough that he is unable to make hide nor hair of a Rorschach test but mild enough that he functions on his own, has been exiled by his family and interned to a local bakery where he is the much beloved and much abused janitor and delivery boy.

Charlie seems to have a good heart and a genuine interest in self-improvement. It is this desire to be great, to be something, that leads to Charlie’s selection as a candidate for an experimental procedure to correct his mental deficiencies. Thus, we move from a narrator incapable of spelling the most basic words and employing English grammar, to a man capable of writing symphonies and learning foreign languages in the blink of an eye. While his meteoric rise into genius is interesting, the heart of the novel and the meat of the story rests in the Charlie’s attempts to understand himself on an emotional level. Before the procedure, he lived in a daze unsure of time, instincts, and a true past. Yet post operation his past surges forth, forcing Charlie to not only face the man he was and the trouble upbringing that lead his familial estrangement, but also to confront his emotional demons in an effort to become truly human.

This quest to be a man, to integrate into society, to seek meaning in life, and ultimately find love, keeps the pages turning. At the same time, Charlie shares a love and affinity for Algermon, a mouse that had the very same procedure and to which he is initially compared. Yet, as Charlie begins to find himself and find a way to intellectually contribute to society while exploring his increasingly complex yet juvenile emotional state, Algermon begins to fade. Once a maze wiz, he starts to become lost and confused. Thus the mouse becomes emotionally unstable, exhibiting duress, and forcing Charlie to confront a sad truth—his time in the world, his chance to connect and be a part of society, will short lived. He too will fade, leaving the merits of the scientific endeavor open to both question and scrutiny. Keyes artful pulls the reader through the narrative, one that holds just as much importance today as it did the day it was penned.

Favorite lines:

  • “People resent being shown that they don’t approach the complexities of the problem—they don’t know what exists beyond the surface ripples”
  • “How different they seem to be now. And how foolish I was ever to have thought that professors were intellectual giants. They’re people—and afraid the rest of the word will find out. And Alice is a person too—a woman, not a goddess—and I’m taking her to a concert tomorrow night.” So true, so honest, so real.

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