This is one of the most thought provoking novels I’ve read in a long time. It was published in 1966, won awards and has been a film, a stage play and even a ballet since then.
It tells the story of Charlie, a young man in his twenties who is ‘retarded’ (the author’s word for it). He becomes the first human subject of an experimental surgical procedure that makes him hugely intelligent. The ‘Algernon’ in the title is a white mouse, the only other living creature to have undergone this operation who is, at the start of the book, ‘one very smart mouse’. The main body of the story is the brief episode in his life when he becomes phenomenally intelligent and self-aware. Charlie is a kind of everyman character, we follow the story through his own diary entries as he experiences the common human experiences of growing up, becoming disillusioned and losing it all again in a very accelerated way.
The big question posed by the book is ‘how much does intelligence matter?’ It also asks the question ‘what makes people valuable?’ and ‘what does it mean to be created?’ I have to warn you, it’s a desperately sad book, there is no comfort, no redemption. It offers no ‘key’ to unlock the meaning of life. In fact it graphically depicts the hopeless despair of a world view completely without God. So why would you want to read it? Well, it’s beautifully written and deeply moving. It makes a very strong case for accepting the ‘differently-abled’ exactly as they are which is quite an achievement as it draws on no moral arguments to make that case, this is a book totally devoid of any sense of Divine presence or love.
For me the most compelling part of the story was Charlie’s recovery of his earlier memories. He comes to know himself only as he begins to remember all the experiences that formed him and almost all of those experiences were bad and abusive. But somehow knowing who he is seems to matter more than anything else, even if that self-knowledge is dark. The introduction in my edition asked the question ‘is it better to be Socrates or a happy pig?’ Daniel Keyes seems to have come to a cleverly conflicted conclusion: ignorance is not bliss but neither is knowledge the route to contentment.
As a Christian, I’d want to say ‘knowing yourself loved’ is the key to contentment. Charlie does experience both love and sex and concludes that sex is the only possible of source of connection and meaning, after an all too brief affair with the woman he loves. Sex he says is ‘the only counterweight, an act of binding and holding… in a universe that …eternally tears us away from one another, child out of the womb, friend away from friend, each through his own pathway toward the goal box of solitary death’. Personally I think that’s expecting alot from Eros. Agape, the biblical word for unconditional, undeserved, unending love is much more of what we need.