by Daniel Keyes
324 pages, Mariner Books
Ignorance is Bliss and Other Myths
Review by SF Winser
So I finally read this one. It's a bit of a high-school text in the US, I believe. A minor classic. So I read it. And then really didn't want to review it because I expect everyone ever forced to write a high-school English essay on the thing will now be judging me, telling me where I'm 'wrong' and hating me for not seeing the inherent floral symbolism and its deeper meaning.
Also because, while I appreciate the book I couldn't say honestly that I liked it. And here, many other ex-essayists are cheering me (I was RIGHT to hate it when Mr. Horniman assigned it!).
Charlie Gordon, thirty two, works in a bakery and is a mentally-disabled man. No, he's a PERSON who happens to have a mental disability. The most dignified of the themes in this book is the idea that Charlie Gordon, smart or dumb, is a person of worth. He's had a drive to learn since he was young, but he's never been able to.
Until he is chosen to undergo an experimental procedure (so far successfully trialled on a mouse called Algernon) designed to boost mental acuity.
It works. Charlie has to take on the responsibilities and concepts of a genius after a life of restricted experiences. And this is where the misreadings of this book as 'Ignorance is Bliss' come from. Because Charlie doesn't have an easy time of it.
I don't think it has aged well, quite frankly. While the text (and I can't help thinking of it as text rather than as a novel) is clear and well-written, while there after many interesting characters, plenty of symbols and/or analogies to be unpacked and some very interesting things to say about human worth, growth, intelligence, love and maturity... I was just kinda left cold. Keyes lets the theme drive the book too much. I could feel the 'shape' of the book while reading, so there were few surprises. I think the only genuine bit of emotion that I felt was when poor Charlie returns to his special education class by mistake towards the end. Besides that, I felt too distant from Charlie. He gets caught up in himself and his situation too much to stay relatable. His 'friends' at his old job all suck, his teacher is weirdly attracted to him for no apparent reason except that book needs her to be. The closest thing to a character who is both believable and likeable is the bohemian artist who lives across the hall from Charlie, and even she figures out Charlie is kind of using her.
The setting is old fashioned and the plot is technically sci-fi. The non-deliberate incongruity made this a hard read. I'm all for some steampunkish retro-tech but the psychology/neurology here is so outdated, but held up as so futuristic and successful, that it's almost laughable. Yes it's a macguffin, but it has - through no fault of Keyes' - become a very unbelievable macguffin. I suppose, technically, one could make the same claim of 'Frankenstein' (which is a book with a lots of structural and thematic similarities to 'Flowers for Algernon') and all I can say is that perhaps Keye's setting of early twentieth century is both too old for the conceit it uses, but not far enough in the past so as to get away with it. This 'Near Future' stuff is actually more problematic as to longevity than more far-reaching sci-fi. Mary Shelley is lucky enough to have more years than Keyes' work, and perhaps better writing to hold her psychosurgical conceit together. It helps that once Shelly uses her macguffin, she (mostly) leaves it the hell alone, whereas Keyes nibbles and gnaws at his and puts it central to Charlie's motivations for huge parts of the book. So as time inevitably shows up the impossibility of each science-fictional set-up being achieved, Doc Frankenstein's zombie-work is more easily accepted by a reader who isn't constantly asked to think about exactly which nerve ending got attached to which cortex.
A worthy read. A bit too 'worthy', in fact. A fine piece of work, but not the most fun I've ever had with a book.