On Thursday, July 16th, the Classics of Science Fiction Book Club met and discussed Daniel Keyes’ seminal work, Flowers for Algernon, the story of a 32-year-old man, Charlie, who is volunteered for an experimental procedure that will increase his I.Q. from 60 to 180 over the period of a few months. Running just ahead of Charlie is Algernon, a lab rat whose initially positive response to the procedure expedited conducting the experiment on a human. Charlie’s experience is recorded in his journal entries, which were initially prescribed, done voluntarily, and (arguably), eventually, written out necessarily. Flowers for Algernon (specifically in its original short story form) has been called a “special kind of tour de force” and identified as a gateway novel to the world of science fiction. Because Charlie’s voice is so distinctly genuine from the outset, readers are often lured into feelings of sympathy and potentially empathy for him as he undergoes his 8 month transformation. Our group generally agreed upon having an emotional response at the story’s end and understood, certain biases and shortcomings of the novel notwithstanding, why Flowers for Algernon continues to be taught in classrooms and is heralded as distinct in 20th century American literature.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Despite the ease with which many readers sympathize with Charlie, we couldn’t help facing the reality that Charlie becomes a jerk when at the height of his intelligence. Plenty of textual evidence supports this claim, but perhaps what is more interesting is what Charlie’s attitude reveals about how intelligence is perceived within different tiers of social systems; that is, it appears to be simultaneously revered and feared. Within the context of his wage job at the bakery, intelligence ushers Charlie from a position of likeable inferiority to despicable superiority. He becomes a pariah. Within the university, Charlie is primarily treated as an object of study rather than a human, regardless of his perceived intelligence. Yet, when he is at the apex of his intellectual trajectory, there is an air of dignity implied by the way in which the other researchers support and value his academic accomplishments. Amongst Charlie’s transitions within larger social systems, his individual, interpersonal relationship exhibit his inability to connect with any one person directly, including himself, the result of which is an angry lashing out and the display of, frankly, “dickish” behavior.
Along that same line of thinking, one topic our group discussed at relative length was the propensity humans have for establishing hierarchies. Humanity’s ability to categorize appears to have greatly benefited our survival (this will kill me, this won’t kill me–I’ll go with this), but is social categorization a necessary product of this trait? Is it human nature to establish a hierarchy in tandem to a collection of categories, or is the hierarchical phenomenon primarily socially derived? Answers to this questions are well beyond the scope of this short review, but the ability for Keyes’ novel to spark this line of questioning I think elucidates some of the greater depth at work in Charlie’s story.
We also discussed the particular type of intelligence that Keyes explores in Flowers for Algernon. After briefly noting the flawed system of measurement that is the Intelligence Quotient, we all agreed that Charlie’s analytical skills and ability to memorize information increased dramatically. He learns dozens of languages, reads and retains scores of scientific journals, and displays an insatiable appetite for information knowledge. Charlie’s emotional intelligence, however, stays the same or possibly decreases as his intellectual intelligence increases. One attendee proposed an interesting thought experiment: What if one were to undergo a sort of charisma surgery and rapidly gain interpersonal intelligence? Seems like the makings of perhaps another powerful short story.
Despite its prominence in American literature, a moderate Googling of Flowers for Algernon primarily returns reviews that praise Keye’s ability to place the reader in Charlie’s experience and elicit a visceral, emotional response by the book’s end. Interestingly, the original Kirkus review (cited above) is one of the few I found that offered criticism, and its criticism, I think, is mostly an interesting reflection of transforming sentimentality in the U.S. circa 1966.
Join us next month on Thursday, August 20th at 7pm for a discussion of Carl Sagan’s Contact.