Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

“Flowers for Algernon”

Daniel Keyes, 1959

Perfection, in any walk of life, is rarely achieved. Once in a lifetime is enough, and Keyes, whose fame rests on this single story, elevated himself among the greats in under 12,000 words. Keyes later expanded the story into a fine award-winning novel: but somehow it works better at the shorter length. The expansion adds nothing fundamental, and by detailing in subplot what was only hinted at before, serves only to dilute and coarsen the purity of the original.

“Flowers for Algernon” is the story of Charlie Gordon, an adult with an IQ of 68 who undergoes a revolutionary and highly dangerous medical procedure which triples his intelligence—an operation previously performed only on Algernon, the mouse who gives his name to the story. In an emotional but beautifully controlled first-person narrative, Keyes tracks Charlie’s ascent to genius, and then, as Algernon sickens and dies, his equally rapid decline.

As Charlie’s intelligence grows, he comes to realise that he has been the oblivious butt of his colleagues’ jokes, and comes to see Dr Nemur and Dr Strauss, the scientists who operated on him, not as gods, but as flawed human beings. When Algernon’s decline foreshadows his own, Charlie knows Nemur and Strauss cannot save him. He can no longer understand the limitations of those whose intellect he has surpassed, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Charlie was both happier and morally superior before his operation—a position that would be both trite and patronising if it were not articulated with such sure-footed élan.

What raises the story into the realms of greatness is Keyes’ narrative strategy. The story is told through Charlie’s ‘progris riports’ which he submits as part of the medical experiment. The prose therefore follows Charlie’s intellectual expansion, and the sections at the beginning and end of the story, where Charlie is barely literate, are handled with particular narrative skill. Simply looking at the pages’ typography allows the reader to sense Charlie's journey, and the emotional power of some of the simple passages is heartbreaking, as here where a bandaged Charlie returns to work:

We had a lot of fun at the factory today. Joe Carp said hey look where Charlie had his operashun what did they do Charlie put some brains in. I was going to tell him but I remembered Dr Strauss said no. Then Frank Reilly said what did you do Charlie forget your key and open your door the hard way. That made me laff. Their really my friends and they like me.

“Flowers for Algernon” is a subtle and moving illustration that intelligence does not automatically confer happiness or moral improvement. Of its kind, I don’t think it has ever been bettered.

How has it influenced me?

My response as a writer to “Flowers for Algernon” is amazement and awe. I have never attempted to copy its techniques, and don’t think I could if I tried. In that sense, it has had no influence at all; but in the other, grander, sense, it is one of the most significant pieces I have ever read. It was one of the first things I read which showed me how glorious the written word can be, and that how you write is as important as what you write about. Even today, a quarter of a century after I first read it, its power over me is undiminished.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

A good short story will not necessarily be improved by expansion to novel length

Truly original ideas come perhaps once in a lifetime…

…but a single good one can make your reputation

Perfection is a mixture of form and content

The "right" ending is not always a happy ending


David Isaak said...

Yes, indeed--perhaps the strongest unity of form and story ever produced. Absolutely shattering, and the first time the closing line of a novel brought tears to my young eyes. (I'm older and more vulnerable now.)

I'd gladly steal Keyes' technique from this book if I could, but I've never seen another situation where anything like this approach could be applied.

The movie, though well-intentioned, could never have worked as well as the book, no matter what they did to it, because so much of the story literally happens on the page.

Enjoyed your post a great deal.

Tim Stretton said...

I've never seen the film, and never wanted to. The story structure itself is perfectly filmable, but it can't possibly have the impact of what's on the page.

That's true of all films, I suppose--after all, how much can you put in a 90-page screenplay--but "Flowers for Algernon" is an extreme case. It's a unique idea pushed to its limit.