21 May 2012

Re-Read : Flowers For Algernon

Flowers For Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes (1927)
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace & World (1966)
274 pages

What do you remember about this book? Probably two things. 1) That it is about a man who has his intelligence increased through science; and 2) There is a mouse and it dies.

What I forgot about the book was that the main character, Charlie, sexually assaults a woman in Central Park and spends a good portion of the book drunk and moaning about the world around him. I forgot that the book is written as journal entries of Charlie's and that the form of the book follows the progression of the character's level of intelligence.

Dr Strauss says I should rite down what I think and remembir and everything that happins to me from now on. I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me. I hope they use me...

That is the opening to the novel. The story was also published as a short story in 1959. That shorter version is what most junior high students read. That main difference is that the novel dwells on Charlie's decent into alcohol and sex a little longer.

What is interesting about the form of Keyes book is that it directly follows the narrative. As Charlie grows in intelligence after his operation the writing becomes clearer, in higher diction. He even discusses his finding of grammar and punctuation:

Today, I learned, the comma, that is, a, comma (,) a period, with, a tail

And the next day:

You, got. to-mix?them!up: She showd ? me" how, to mix! them; up, and now! I can. mix (up all? kinds of punctuation - in, my. writing!

Compare this to the later entries:

Nemur, Strauss, Burt, and a few of the others on the project were waiting for me in the psych office. They tried to make me feel welcome but I could see how anxious Burt was to take Algernon, and I turned him over.

Keyes has managed a book with form and function in harmony. The book is definitely worth a re-read though. It is beautiful and sad. It manages to be cautionary without being too preachy. That said, there are a ton of ham-fisted moments though. Anytime Charlie is put into a situation with a woman it turns into awkward 1950s theater and the men are painted in more detailed strokes then the women. The women are lust/pity objects for Charlie to play his psychology off of.

Which makes sense. Keyes got his start at Timely Comics which would change into Atlas Comics under Stan Lee. Atlas is the company that would one day become Marvel. Keyes wrote horror comics at EC in the mid-50s. HIs background is in short-form action/horror/sci-fi with clear good guys and bad guys. Little gray areas. That Flowers for Algernon is as good as it is, and holds up, is a bit of a miracle.

The clip above is from the 1968 film Charly, based on Flowers for Algernon. Cliff Robertson won an Oscar for his role as Charly.

Join me in the discussion. Next Month : The Great Gatsby.

Re-Read is a sometime article where I go back and read a book from my childhood over and examine the threads that I find in my current adult life.

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