|In Short:||Handsome is as handsome does.|
|If the operashun werks good Ill show that mouse I can be as smart as he is even smarter.|
Have you met Charlie Gordon, aspiring genius? If not, why the hell not? His story is once heartwarming and soul-crushing, as we see through his eyes (the book is written epistolary style, via Charlie’s mandated journal entries) the extraordinary change that comes over him when an experimental procedure increases his one-time limited IQ to that on a par with some of the most brilliant individuals who have ever lived.
I love, love, love this book. Have done since I first picked it up, all unknowing what wonder was awaiting me, at my school library when I was about ten years old. I didn’t know, then, that Flowers for Algernon was science fiction. Did not then, in my but nascent geekdom, recognize it for the sterling exemplar of speculative fiction that it is. I didn’t even know what speculative fiction was when I saw it. (To me back then, sci-fi meant spaceships; it would be at least a couple of years before I discovered it was -- and remains -- so much more.)
What first captured me about this book, then as now, is the open hearted warmth with which our narrator first greets us. Charlie works as a janitor and delivery boy in a bakery, has an IQ of 68 and, little though he knows it, is the butt of cruel jokes from almost everyone he knows. As a child, he had been sent away from home to live a life of hidden dullness, but Charlie’s is a spirit that will not be denied, and far from accepting his fate as a reject, as a mistake -- which is how he has been treated all his life -- at age thirty he decides that all he really wants to do is learn how to read.
His enthusiasm, his temperament and his drive all lead him to being recommended by his teacher as a likely candidate for a new experiment in intelligence boosting, previously only carried out on mice. (The most successful of which was the titular Algernon.) Ordered to keep a journal to document his progression, once the treatment has been enacted, Charlie painstakingly scratches out an account of his life that is both completely adorable and infuriating at the same time. As his journey begins, he writes things like “I just want to be smart like other pepul so that I can have lots of friends who like me” and “If your smart you can have lots of fiends to talk to and you never get lonley by yourself all the time.” He even talks about what he’d like to do once the operation has worked: “I was gone to try and find my mom and dad. They woud be serprised to see how smart I got because my mom always wanted me to be smart too. Mabey they woudnt send me away no more if they see how smart I am.”
But, of course, as Charlie’s intelligence increases exponentially (pretty soon he’s fluent in multiple languages, discussing obscure points of economics and quantum mechanics with overwhelmed college professors and generally being the kind of know-it-all who would have gotten beaten up mercilessly in the schoolyard just as surely as Charlie ever did for being slower on the uptake) he comes to realize that there is so much more to happiness than mere brains… and, in fact, that the smarter you are, often the more suffering you have to endure.
Mixed up with all of this is Charlie’s emotional immaturity when it comes to women, the childhood traumas visited on him by his abusive mother, A Child Called It-style, the breakdown of his pre-smart relationships and always his feeling of kinship with Algernon, the white lab mouse who is also an oddity amongst his own kind -- and an early warning system for the disappointing but almost inevitable regression that Charlie will have to face.
If you are the sort to cry in books (as, I am afraid, I very much am), then I warn you to have your Kleenex at the ready for this one. But it's good crying. It's "wow, this book is messing with my head AND I LOVE IT" crying. Every time I read it I find tears springing to my eyes, whether of joy or of sorrow or of pity or of fury, and I get so swept up in the story, in Charlie and his remarkable zest for life, that occasionally I don’t even realize my cheeks are wet.
If, somehow, this book has so far passed you by (or you thought perhaps you could get away with just watching one of the several movies made of it), then I urge you to find yourself a copy and settle in for a gripping tale of self-discovery... both Charlie’s and, most probably, your own.
-- Rachel Hyland