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Wednesday, August 28, 2002
By Paul Ford
A few notes on the book.
I've been gluttonous for sci-fi lately - it comes every few years, I need to read another 2 dozen books in a row - and I picked this up, having read the novella on which the novel is based in some middle-school anthology, maybe when I was 12. It's a sci-fi classic, the blurb says, but it's really a nearly-pure tragedy, written as the diary of a 30-something retarded man, given an operation to improve his intelligence, who becomes a genius, then watches his genius fade.
In the first 50 pages the dramatic irony of retarded Charlie, I.Q. 68, who writes ad nauseum about how smart he's going to be, does not achieve the effect intended - it's too procedural, predictable, and the reader is over-conscious of the author as he struggles to tell a story through the eyes of a barely literate man. It would have been better to use less first-person Charlie along with other “primary sources” - snatches of dialogue, doctor's reports, or an omniscient narrator, bring us into Charlie's mind from other sources.
Dating the prose, the book also is endlessly Freudian as Charlie chews through his relationship with his mother and seeks to overcome sexual repression; he succeeds, and I felt chilled, indifferent. Another 60s book with a similar narrative approach, and many of the same flaws: A Patch of Blue. The diary of the outsider: retarded, or blind, through whom the reader is to learn empathy for the different. But A Patch of Blue's didacticism overwhelmed the story; Flowers for Algernon's is thankfully subsumed by well-drawn characters.
With character as focus, the second half succeeds as tragedy. Or, as above, a nearly-pure tragedy. Charlie becomes tragic: his hubris expands; he becomes cold and unbearable. But this is coincidental. The agents of his fate, technology, science, medicine, make their decisions with stochastic methods. In this case they cause not real death, but mental death, even more tragic; at the end we're left trying to reach Charlie, and he's trying to reach himself, but he's lost to us.
At the end of the novel the dramatic irony is folded over, becomes part of the character's own assessment of himself. He researches his own condition and discovers that he will regress, incurably; he writes a paper on his condition at the peak of his powers, then finds himself unable to understand it, in an agony the whole way. The night after I read the book I lay in bed and tried to make the story end differently before I could sleep, give Lear back his kingdom, bring Ophelia back from the dead, give Charlie a working brain. Finding new stories, the ones that keep the reader from sleeping. Keyes is no great stylist, and he's written hardly anything since, but he managed to find where the tragic is now, not in betrayal by your daughters, or your uncle killing your father and marrying your mother; that's talk-show material, but in the cancer cure that does not work, the pills with symptoms as bad as the disease, the air bag that kills the child upon release. We have no fatal flaws ourselves; we are surrounded by them, dancing with them, forced to live with them in order to survive.