The theme for this month’s McBride Library Book Club was “Gardens and Flowers” and I guess because “Flowers for Algernon” had the word “Flowers" in the title, it was one of the suggested novels, and it’s description sounded interesting.
It is a science fiction novel that has nothing to do with flowers or gardens, but instead follows the life of Charlie, a thirty year old individual with a very low IQ (70), who works as a janitor in a bakery. Charlie is good natured, but very naive, and enjoys the camaraderie of the others that work in the bakery, not realizing that they are usually just making fun of his stupidity, and laughing at him.
He knows he is not smart, and tries to “get smarter” by attending a night class to help his reading. His teacher, Alice is so impressed with his desire and determination to better himself that she passes off his name to a group of psychologists and psychiatrists, who are researching a medical procedure that, in mice, seems to increase intelligence. The “Algernon”in the book’s title is the name of their most intelligent laboratory mouse whose IQ has been doubled by the procedure.
Charlie is slated to become first human subject for the procedure. Before that happens, he is put through all kinds of tests to establish his mental capabilities. In one series of tests, he has to actually “race” Algernon, with Charlie attempting to complete a maze puzzle on paper. while at the same time, Algernon the mouse, is racing through his maze. Charlie always loses.
After the procedure is performed on Charlie, his mental capacity slowly begins to increase, he soon is able to beat Algernon, and as time passes he becomes so intelligent that his abilities begin to exceed those of the scientists that are working with him. He achieves his lifelong desire of becoming smarter, but it is not the gift he had thought it would be.
He discovers his “friends” back at the bakery were just making fun of him, and he begins to see the pettiness and cruelty in others, including his parents, who had cruelly abandoned him as a child. As the memories of his childhood begin to return, he becomes increasingly depressed.
Everyone he knows become intimidated by his intelligence, and he looses the companionship of all of those he knows.
His unhappiness turns to fear when it is discovered that Algernon’s abilities suddenly begin a rapid deterioration, and Charlie begins to wonder if this will soon happen to him.
Beside the storyline, the other thing that made this novel so interesting was the way it was written. The entire story was written in the first person, by Charlie, in the form of his “Progress Reports” that he had to write daily before and after the procedure. In his first progress reports he used only simple words, many misspelled, without punctuation, then as his intellect increased, so did his vocabulary and grammar.
While I generally don’t read much science fiction, I did enjoy reading this unusual novel.