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• Friday, February 28th, 2014

Daniel Keyes was born in 1927 and raised in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of seventeen, he briefly joined the US Maritime Service as a ship’s purser before studying psychology and obtaining his BA degree at Brooklyn College in 1950.

He worked as an associate fiction editor, then as a fashion photographer, before earning a license to teach English in New York City schools. At the same time he studied and received an M.A. degree in English and American Literature from Brooklyn College. He left New York to teach Creative Writing at Wayne State University in Detroit, before moving to Ohio University in 1966 to teach English and Creative Writing.

In 1988 Keyes received the Distinguished Alumnus Medal Of Honour from Brooklyn College and in 2000 he was honoured with professor emeritus status at Ohio University. He lives in Boca Raton in Southern Florida.

Daniel Keyes has written eleven books to date and received several awards. He became well known after the publication of his very successful first novel: Flowers For Algernon, published as a short story in 1959 and as a novel in 1966. It won the Hugo Award in 1960 for the short story and in 1967 for the novel. It also won the Nebula Award in 1966 and the Locus Award of 1998 for the fortieth best novel before 1990.

Flowers For Algernon has been translated into many languages, has sold millions of copies all over the world and was made into a film called, Charly in 1968. It was also adapted for the stage and developed as a Broadway musical drama in 1980.

Algernon is a white laboratory mouse who becomes very intelligent after an unprecedented, experimentally successful brain surgery.

Charlie Gordon, whose fate is about to mirror Algernon’s, works for eleven dollars a week – plus bread or cakes, if he wants – as a cleaner at Donners bakery in New York. He is thirty-two years old and was born mentally disabled. Charlie is extremely eager to become intelligent and learn fast in order to fit in and for people to like him. Therefore, he volunteers to undergo the same brain operation as Algernon. Permission is given by his sister, Norma, and supported by Miss Alice Kinnian, his teacher at Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults who recommends him as her best student, to Dr Strauss and Professor Nemur for the experimental surgery.

Dr Strauss asks Charlie to write down all his thoughts and what he remembers, which Charlie does in a semi-literate way, on a regular basis under the title: “progris riports”. In progress report 7 March 11, he writes: “If your smart you can have lots of frends to talk to and you never get lonely by yourself all the time.”

The spelling, vocabulary, punctuation and acumen of Charlie’s written progress reports improve gradually at the same pace as his mental condition advances steadily after his brain operation. The experiment is a great scientific achievement. Charlie’s IQ increases to exceed even that of his neurosurgeon, Dr Strauss and his psychologist, Professor Nemur.

Sadly, after becoming a genius, Charlie discovers the hard, cruel and real ugly truth about things around him. When he was mentally handicapped he thought people working at the bakery were his friends and never realised that they were making fun of him and laughing at him and not with him as he imagined. Presently what pains him most is that unknowingly he used to join them in laughing at himself.

When he becomes lucid, Charlie turns bitter and rancorous when he says to Alice Kinnian referring to the workers at Donners bakery: “they played tricks on me, and laughed at me” and although being aware of their cruelty, in his confused mind he still thinks of them as his real friends. He says to Professor Nemur: “ when I was retarded I had lots of friends. Now I have no one”, albeit knowing “lots and lots of people”. Professor Nemur replies: “You’ve become cynical […] your genius has destroyed your faith in the world and in your fellow men”. Charlie replies, perspicaciously, that intelligence and education alone without “human affection” are worthless.

Charlie becomes shrewd and angrily rebellious against life and people around him. Even Alice Kinnian – his former teacher – admits that after becoming highly intelligent, he has lost “his warm, real smile”, an engaging smile that was meant to attract people and gain their love and affection. Throughout the novel the author accentuates the regrettable fact that a mentally disabled person is just as alienated as an abnormally genius human being, because neither happen to fit with the predominant standard.

Charlie has always been seeking love and affection from his mother, Rosa, his father Matt and his younger sister, Norma. Instead he is rejected as an abnormal child and put in the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults without any of his family ever visiting him. Charlie never recovers from being estranged from his family.

Despite becoming highly intelligent, Charlie remains emotionally handicapped and finds it difficult to become emotionally mature. He is in love with Alice Kinnian who returns his love but with all his knowledge he does not know how to handle the situation. Each time he attempts to physically express his love, the phantoms from his past haunt him. In the end, after making peace with his past as well as using strong will power, he manages to overcome his demons. He then succeeds in making love to his bohemian neighbour, Fay, which encourages him to physically express without inhibition his strong love for Alice, the only woman he ever loved.

Regrettably, the wonderful positive, scientific breakthrough effect of the brain surgery experiment only lasts a few months before Algernon’s cleverness unexpectedly deteriorates followed by his death. After following Algernon’s decline, Charlie witnesses in a panic that his intelligence is also reducing gradually and deduces with horror, that he is going back to his former mental disability.

The heart-wrenching part takes place at the end of the story when the now mentally disabled Charlie reveals he has not forgotten that, not long before, he was a genius. He writes: “I know evrybody feels sorry for me […] I dont want that […] so Im going someplace where they are a lot of other pepul like me and nobody cares that Charlie Gordon was once a genus and now he cant even reed a book or rite good”. The novel ends on a moving note, with Charlie asking Miss Kinnian, in his farewell message if she could put some flowers on Algernon’s grave in the back yard, when she gets a chance.

Flowers For Algernon is narrated by the main character, Charlie Gordon. It is a non typical science fiction novel, written in a diary cum epistolary form. The author brings into focus several subjects: the main one is compassion for mentally handicapped people who are less fortunate than ourselves. Then there are the ethical questions about experimenting on human beings as well as on animals and how the upbringing of a child can severely hinder him psychologically, haunt him and ruin his future. And finally, how great conflicts can arise between mind versus feeling.

Flowers For Algernon is an original, enthralling, thought provoking novel, deeply poignant and beautifully written with a great deal of empathy.

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• Friday, October 25th, 2013

Tirdad Zolghadr was born in 1973 in California. He grew up in Tehran in Iran, England and North and West Africa. He obtained a B.A. Degree in history and political science and an M.A. in English and Comparative Literature at The University of Geneva, Switzerland. He worked as a cultural journalist and translator before working as a freelance art critic and curator.

He writes for Frieze and other publications and is a founding member of the Shahrzad art and design collective. He lives and works between Berlin and New York and teaches at the Center of Curatorial Studies at Bard College in New York.

Zolghadr’s first novel, Softcore, which has been translated into German, Italian and French, was published in 2007. In this satirical, cynical novel, the narrator, a cosmopolitan, art-minded individual, like the author himself, is an opportunistic young Iranian man returning to Tehran after graduating from Yale University in the U.S.A. He has a great plan for re-opening the family restaurant and cocktail bar, the Promessa, closed in 1978, during the Iranian Islamic revolution. He is ambitious and has in mind to transform, the Promessa, into a space for art exhibitions, fashion venues, workshops, film sets, corporate receptions and dance parties.

The narrator is part of the international art world and his most important mentor and muse is Stella, who he met ten years back in the U.S.A. She is always behind him electronically, telling him what to do. She is a German historian, specialised in postwar art brut while being a spy at the same time but he is unaware of it.

The novel takes a different path when the main protagonist is caught by the police and jailed for innocently photographing the Tehran neon orange flower stand, which happens to be near the Revolutionary Courthouse. Being a polyglot and widely travelled, he is asked by the police to become their spy or bear the consequence of refusal. From now on he is thrown into the treacherous world of conspiracy and deceit.

An original glimpse into modern cultural Iran, a contrast with the serious, conservative religious state of the mollahs. Tehran is depicted as an important international crossroad, but unfortunately there are some other interesting topics and opportunities which the author has missed, like elaborating more deeply about life in Tehran, the contrast between the regime now and during the Shah’s reign as well as to what extent people are coping and what are the authorities’ views on the arts today, etc…

Alas, taken as a whole, this is an obscure, unbalanced, pretentious, unconvincing novel. It is unstructured, irritably overdone with unnecessary name dropping of all sorts of products as well as names of rock and roll stars, poets and artists, ad nauseum. The characters are one-dimensional, incongruous and unsympathetic. They evolve haphazardly throughout the story which makes it difficult to follow the turn of events and confuses the reader. If the author intended to write an original novel he strayed from his target.