Monday, February 2, 2009

Combination Plate 2

Daniel Keyes: "Flowers for Algernon"

I just finished rereading Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon." It's s a fascinating depiction of an individual whose intellectual capacity increases from subnormal to supernormal, but who still essentially remains the same person.

He is still the kind, decent person he was prior to his newly found ability to understand the world about him. He also realizes that, in spite of his initial intellectual impairment, he had those attributes which make one human to a greater degree than did those who may have had greater intellectual capacity but who lacked the human capacity for compassion and empathy and concern for others.

This is a remarkable accomplishment for a genre that tends to downplay character and focus on science or technology. Unlike others I have read that go back a half century or so, "Flowers
for Algernon" is as good now as it was then. Perhaps it is that human element that allows it to survive over time.

I haven't read the novel version which came some five or six years later, or the film, Charley, which came out about ten years after the short story was published. After having read the original story, I'm now curious about the expanded version and the film. To be honest, I have generally found that the expanded versions or films of prize-winning novellas or short stories are seldom as good.

But, there are always exceptions.


Edith Wharton: The Glimpses of the Moon, a novel
The novel opens with very familiar characters--two young people who are bright, handsome, intelligent, well-liked but poor. They are of socially prominent families that have seen better days. Neither can afford to live much longer in the class in which they were born, and neither wants to abandon those friends and acquaintances. Nick Lansing tries to make a living as a writer, while Susy Branch lives off her friends.

Nick and Susy aren't lovers, though they are best of friends. In spite of this, they come up with a rather unique
solution--marry, combine their economic resources, and live for the day. They decide that they could probably survive for about a year, and perhaps longer, depending upon the generosity of their friends. And their friends do come through for them, allowing them to stay with them, and even opening up a home for a honeymoon in Italy that they have shut down while they lived in their US residence.

There is one more precondition: if either one of them finds a better opportunity--in other words, a suitor with money--then the other would quickly grant a divorce.

It is at this point that the novel turns absolutely, completely, wholly predictable. I'm not going to reveal the ending, save to say that all you have to do is imagine the most commonplace, ordinary, traditional plot and resolution for a romantic comedy and you have it.

The story, as are all of Wharton's works, is well-written with her usual sharp eye for the foibles and excesses of the upper classes. The characters are interesting, aside from Nick and Susy, who seem to be the typical young couple trapped in a romantic comedy--the interest is not in them, but in their situation. Nick and Susy, to be honest, seem rather bland and unremarkable, while their friends and acquaintances are far more interesting.

Overall: it's definitely not a typical Wharton work. Except for the rather banal plot, I would give it high marks for everything else.


Samuel R. Delany: Babel-17, a novel

This is early Delany, and, therefore, Delany at his best--back when he was more interested in writing to entertain than writing to insure his place in literary history.

Earth and its allies are at war with The Invaders. Just who the Invaders are is never really made clear. There are some hints that the Invaders are humans who have gone off and colonized another part of the galaxy and then have returned with malice in their hearts.

The two sides are evenly matched until the Invaders come up with an unbreakable code, or at least a code the Earth Alliance code breakers are unable to decrypt. One of the codebreakers suggests that the only person who could help decode Babel-17 is Rydra Wong, a former codebreaker who left to become a poet. She had an intuitive sense for words and patterns of words that no one else had.

The story, then, is of her quest to understand Babel-17 before it is too late. Along the way the reader will encounter individuals who have decided that they weren't happy with their appearance, so they add beaks, or claws, or inches, or bony spurs for fighting, or even wings. The body sculpters are very good at this time. Today's plastic surgeons are at the same level in comparison to the practicioners of that day as removing a splinter would be to open heart surgery today. In addition, part of her ship's crew are discorporate individuals--the dead, in other words.

Delany serves up an interesting mileu along with an interesting cast of characters and even a bit of space warfare along the way, in addition to some interesting thoughts about language and poetry.

Overall: many steps above the usual space adventure novel. If you are looking for some action and some ideas to contemplate, this is one for you.


  1. I completely agree about "Flowers for Algernon," Fred. I re-read it not long ago, and it was just as good as I'd remembered. This is one classic story that holds up very, very well.

    I've read the novel version, too, but years ago, and I don't remember the details. Certainly, after re-reading the short story, it's hard to imagine how that could be improved upon.

    Babel-17 is another book I haven't read recently. Your description sounds vaguely familiar, is all. I need to make an effort to read it again sometime.


  2. WCG,

    If my description of _Babel-17_ sounds only vaguely familiar, that's because it is vague. To go into any sort of detailed description of the novel would require a book as long as the original novel.

    _Babel-17_ is another one that held up very well over the years.

  3. I have tried to read Babel 17, but can only get so far (usually 1/3 of the way through) and just put it down. For me, the writing is more along the lines of poetry, and is very dense and rich and I get bogged down in it. I have read other books and stories by Delany that I liked, but somehow I just can't tackle this one. Any suggestions?

  4. Cheryl,

    I think that the density and the poetic nature of the work diminishes as Delany gets further into the work.

    It's either that or that one becomes more familiar with the style and finds it easier to read.

    It definitely cannot be classified as a page turner or a fast read.