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Daniel Keyes, Algernon, Charlie, and I (New York: Harvest/Harcourt, 2000/2004, 220 pages, $13.00, 220 pages, ISBN 0-15-602999-5)—Megan O'Neill, Stetson University


Flowers for Algernon (1966)* is one of those stories that once read can never, ever be forgotten. Because it echoes through archetypal caverns, trying to hear all its nuances is nearly impossible. One resorts to clichés: "It touched me," or one provides that fulsome critical comment: "it's a heartbreaking work of staggering genius." For writers, the temptation after reading Algernon is probably either of two: to never try to write another word, or to wonder, with a touch of envy, how in the world such a staggering idea comes to be. Daniel Keyes himself does the latter for us, and in doing so makes the creation of one man's world, if not a repeatable phenomenon, at least comprehensible and familiar.

It's so simple, really. Keep a writer's notebook. Remember to write about what you know. Keep records of dialogue, interesting encounters, workplaces, and people. Learn to write by writing. Write the story you want to write, and don't let anyone change your endings.

But it's not that simple, of course. The niggling question whence creativity? keeps coming up. And although Keyes's story is fascinating in what its narrative suggests about the coming together of an idea, it leaves that niggling question unanswered—as, perhaps, it should be.

The story of Charlie Gordon is probably fairly well known: struggling writer and sometime pulp editor Keyes comes up with a striking short story about a young mildly retarded man, who volunteers for radical surgery designed to increase his intelligence. Keyes relates from Charlie's point of view the gradual development of genius and its loss and, to point up the pathos, casts the white mouse Algernon as Charlie's "doppelganger." Algernon's experimental surgery and its results forecast Charlie's arc, and Algernon's death—tied to the fact that the smarter Charlie can see it all coming—underscores the ending note Charlie leaves in his journal. The idea for the story is sufficiently original that it grew—not just to a short story, but also the novel, live television, musical theater, and feature film. Narrating the story's progression would probably be enough to satisfy most readers, but Keyes, fortunately, has some self-revelation to perform for us, and some excavation of childhood and otherwise formative memory in the service of exposing some of the habits of the writer.

If the initial question is why Charlie Gordon haunts Daniel Keyes, then the subsequent questions must be about the relationship between the two men: Charlie Gordon, subnormal IQ, inquisitive, innocently intrepid. Daniel Keyes, struggling writer. Charlie, wanting to be smart. Keyes, wanting to be A Writer. Charlie, pushing a broom and learning the hard way that people are cruel. Keyes, expecting to be a doctor and learning the hard way that medicine is not his path. These are not parallels to which Keyes draws attention, but it must be said that his book does not answer its own very important question, instead leaving the reader to make sense of it if she can. So be it—the real meat of this writer's journey is not why one character haunts a writer but how one's writing comes together, how nuggets of experience and insight and character coalesce into story.

Keyes himself would say, I suppose, that his writing process delves into Freudian territory:


[T]he only material I can really call my own is stored deep in the unconscious area of my root cellar. I use free association like a gardener's spade to dig out connected memories, bring them into the light, and replant them where they can bloom. [82]


Certainly, this simple approach is evident throughout the narrative. Keyes's sometime encounter with a pregnant mouse corpse, which he is expected to dissect, nauseates him first, deters him from medicine second, and provides the perfect counterpoint to Charlie Gordon third: as he writes the short story years later, the character emerges from his keyboard, and he calls out to nobody, "The mouse! The mouse!" He names it Algernon, remembering his interest the first time he saw the name Charles Algernon Swinburne [101]. Charlie himself springs from the free association between Keyes's work at a bakery, his unthinking laughter when a mentally retarded restaurant helper drops a tray of plates, and an encounter with a young man in a high school English class for "slow" students who says to him, "I want to be smart."

In fact, so much of the Charlie Gordon story is excavated and left for the reader to assemble that one marvels at Keyes's prodigious memory. How on earth, at this remove, can he remember that his first sight of the name Algernon came on the same day as his fateful encounter with the dead white mouse on a lab tray? Yet these occurrences interlock so perfectly that we find it hard to dispute this example of the coalescent function of the writer on a journey. And that, among all the questions raised by the answers Keyes has provided, is perhaps the most intriguing: is this book really about Keyes's journey? Or is it Charlie's? The writer of the subtitle could be either man.

No matter whose journey we're really reading, though—whether it's the journey of the story through its various incarnations, the journey of the young Charlie Gordon and the white mouse Algernon, or the journey of Dan Keyes, determined writer—there are nuggets found scattered on the trail that illuminate more than the mysterious workings of the "writerly" mind. The accidental interference with screenwriter William Goldman's early career, for instance, and the enormous hubris, as a pulp editor, of rejecting a short story by none other than Lester Del Rey are delightfully understated bits. Keyes's mother intrudes fairly often as he remembers her berating him, with greater and lesser tenderness, "do it over! It has to be perfect!" [52]. He offers one unforgettable lesson for would-be writers who have had their first book published: contact the local booksellers and pimp it yourself. And writers must learn the hard way, I suppose, the other inevitable lesson: if someone asks you what your stories mean, do not, in any way, answer them.

Fortunately, Keyes has included in his writer's journey a reprint of the original short story, the acorn from which grew a mighty oak. By the time we arrive at the end of this personal narrative, we have already seen the stock in the root cellar: the mouse, an odd name, a young man yearning for acceptance, experiences in therapy. Reading the narrative prepares us for a fresh reading of the short story, which appears even more striking in relief. If the alchemical process of coalescence itself is still mysterious, it should only remind us that creativity's origins are not be explained, only questioned. The story of Algernon, Charlie, and Daniel Keyes is both fascinating and humorous, and strongly recommended for writers and readers alike.


*Flowers for Algernon was reissued in the Harcourt Brace Modern Classics series in 1995.

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