It was the first book I shed tears after reading. It was the first book I enjoyed – though that’s not exactly the emotion it generated – but couldn’t read again. I couldn’t face the tragedy. I still cannot. I read it a long time ago, and it many ways its impact is still with me every day of my life. And, though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was one of the reasons I was so strongly drawn towards reading science fiction.
The book? Flowers for Algernon. It’s a first person narrative about a man of low intelligence who is experimented on to see if his intelligence can be increased, just like the laboratory mouse they succeeded with. The man’s language and his perspective mature through the book. It doesn’t last.
The reason for the blog post? Daniel Keyes, the author of that masterpiece, has died.
I think Flowers for Algernon is heartbreaking, and utterly, completely brilliant. My copy has an introduction from Jon Courtenay Grimwood in which he calls the book a “work of genius”. High praise indeed, but I think he’s right. Flowers for Algernon is, as Grimwood puts it, “eerily perfect”. It’s one of those books which feels destined to have been written, somehow – the idea behind it is just so perfect, so horribly disturbing.
“We were, of course, greatly saddened by the news but there’s a comfort in Daniel Keyes having had a long life and that he left us with a great legacy; a wonderful, heartbreaking book,” said Simon Spanton, at Keyes’ UK publisher Gollancz. “In its pitilessly tight focus and tragic story arc, delivered in a first-person narrative whose very nature cuts to the core of what is gained and then lost, it is for me the most heartbreaking book in the genre.”
Let me join those saying goodbye – and thanks – to Daniel Keyes.