I had been hesitant to read Flowers for Algernon because I had read the short story version back in sixth grade for my “language arts” class, and remember it almost too well: it is sad, sad, sad. No surprise here – the adult, flushed out version, made me want to sob as I finished it. I have had many emotional reactions to the books I’ve read, but this is the first time my vision has gone foggy with tears. (John Crowley came close, but there was a slightly different texture (dread) in the emotion.) However, this story has transcendent moments, moments of amazing tenderness and insight, and it was a lightning, don’t-want-to-put-down read. I finished the book within hours of picking it up.
This is one of the books that Chris moved with him to Northern California – an old library book from the San Marino Public Library, with the typed pocket and card still inside the front cover. It originally cost 75 cents, back in 1968. This was also the perfect book to follow Beggars of Spain, and it very probably inspired that book: Charlie Gordon suffers the envy of his fellows for his fleeting genius, and knowing nods are given both to Plato’s The Republic and to Milton’s Paradise Lost. Moreover, the character of Charlie is completely, absolutely riveting and compelling.
This is a story about compassion and affection, and it shows in the very language. A reader worries for Charlie’s safety, for a lab mouse’s safety, for the safety of the women who try to care for Charlie. The merest details echo those themes: walls that are too plain and straight are not above the author’s concern. Even the furniture occupies the reader: the mangy green couch, and the old mattress with wires gaping out of its sliced belly, were double-edged images – both poetically clear and evoking sympathy.
In other books, I’ve noticed that language reinforces the story and theme, but here it is in high relief. Not only Charlie’s grasp and loss of language, but the care put into every image. This is not done of f the cuff. It requires planning.