Wednesday, 17 February 2010
Flowers for Algernon
In Flowers we go with Charley as incredible changes to his intellect occur. When the original short story was written such matters as IQ and other forms of pysch. testing were considered to be preminent, defining characteristics ofhumans. Yet one of the key points of the story is, as far as Charley is concerned, that despite the changes to his intelligence an essential part of him is maintained across the arc of the narrative.
Some people give the following definition of a story: Get a character in a situation, then throw rocks at him. This is the template for Flowers. At the start Charley is a moron who is the butt of the jokes of his co-workers. At the middle he is a lonely genius who has discovered that his brilliance will soon fade. At the end he has lost everything, his love and his intellect. The only thing he has managed to hold on to is the cloudy recollection that he was once smart. And throughout his journey, even at the heights when he was hailed a genius, he still maintains a connection with, and feels ashamed for his former self,
Finally Charley losses almost everything. All Charley has left is his kinship with Algernon the white lab mouse who has made the same journey. Charley knows he has a connection with Algernon, but he no longer understands why. We might be left wondering what the whole point was. Charley has gained no insight, he can't even recall how much he actually had and lost. Yet Keyes delivers the payoff through the minor characters. After everything, when Charley returns to his old job, we discover that his old tormentors, who can recall his travails better than he can, finally show some respect for him. It's a blink and you'd miss it moment, but for me it's crucial.
When Keyes submitted the story to Galaxy the editor said he loved it but please re-write it to allow Charley to hold on to his intelligence. Keyes left the story unchanged and went to another magazine. Later, after the short story version had found success Keyes developed it into a novel. Again various publishers asked for a rewrite so that Charley could retain his gifts. Keyes eventually found a publisher who would go with the story as we find it today. I don't think anyone could doubt that Keyes was correct. Had he changed it he might have made a quicker sale but he would have created just another SF potboiler, notable only for a little physcho babble about ink blot tests. Instead he created a classic that has never been out of print, sold over five million copies and, fifty years on been retold on stage and screen over a dozen times.
Sometimes, it seems, it just pays to stick to your guns.