04 December, 2010

Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

I read this for our book group last weekend. I had read it before many years ago so knew how it basically went.

Charlie Gordon has an intellectual disability. He has been selected for an experimental operation aimed at restoring his mental faculties to "normal." As part of the experiment he is asked to write progress reports, documenting his feelings and what happens to him in the time before and after the operation.

In the beginning Charlie's entries are full of mis-spellings and incorrections. He tells us about his friends at the bakery he works at, how they make him laugh. He gets upset by the fact that Algernon, the mouse who has already had the operation and shows every sign of success, continually beats him at a maze game.

As time goes on, Charlie's entries become more sophisticated as the effects of the operation start to take place. He starts to learn more about the world and not all of it is good. Those work mates, they didn't laugh with him, they laughed at him. And people often say what they don't mean. And those memories of his childhood are particularly good either.

And then Algernon starts to decline. Charlie now at a point where he is smarter than just about anyone, does the research and realises his own time is limited.

This is a great book for a book group. It bought up such great discussion. Do we have the right to interfere, play God? How far would you go to "fix" your child? Why does society feel there is a need to "fix" children who aren't neurotypical? Was Charlie better off happy and ignorant, or angry, sad and confused but intelligent?

The book is written completely from Charlie's point of view. This means the beginning can be hard going as the writing is at the level of maybe a grade 1 or 2 child. I found myself getting angry on Charlie's behalf as he talked about his "friends" and how they were so obviously using him for their own entertainment. For me it really bought about questions about why we feel we need to fix people with intellectual disabilities. At times I struggled with the language, remembering it was written in the late 50's, early 60's. Terms such as moron just don't sit well in today's society. I also had to constantly remind myself of the period when reading about Charlie's relationship with his mother. The stigma of having an "abnormal" child was high and she didn't deal well at all. In the end though, the book is timeless in a way. As I said, it raises so many questions that are just as relevant today as they were back in the 60's. I would highly recommend reading it.