On the advice of Ian Hocking (who is now, I trust, happily ensconced in Canterbury), I've been reading Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes and it's very good, as he declared. I won't bother to review it, as Ian's done a fine job of that already, but two points suggest themselves.
First, dear God, the title. Before Ian began hymning the book's praises, I'd noticed it on the shelves of my second favourite second-hand bookshop in Bangkok, and walked past, simply because the title seems to suggest some sub-Wildean soft-porn potboiler about golden-haired youths fumbling each other into manhood behind the bikesheds of Eton in about 1905. When a movie version was made in 1968 (of Keyes's novel, not of my imaginary posh gay smut), they retitled it Charly. I normally object to that sort of thing as inane d***ing d**n that insults the intelligence of the audience and the integrity of the author, but in this case I think it was a good call.
The other thing is that some aspects of the novel (or, more specifically my reading of it - hold that thought, I'll come back to it in a moment) provide a neat clarification of Roland Barthes's 'Death of the Author' theory. This is something I touched on in Welcome to the Machine (available at a half-decent bookshop near you, if such a thing still exists), but hell, why not give it another run round the digital paddock?
Essentially, Barthes argues that it's pointless to second-guess the intentions of an author of a piece of writing, whether by reference to his or her biography, or to the words themselves. A book is 'created' not by the author, but by the reader, whose own experiences, opinions, prejudices, previous readings, etc all have an influence on the meaning derived from the reading. By extension, it's quite feasible to argue that Book B is an influence on Book A, even if B was written after A, and even if the author of A never read it. If the reader of A has already read B, it can influence the reading of that text.
In WTTM, my example was the perceived influence of a book by Philip K Dick on the themes of OK Computer, even though Thom Yorke protested that he'd never read the book in question. As I read Flowers for Algernon, elements of the book triggered thoughts of books I'd read before. Parts of the book are written in a deliberately primitive first-person voice, suggesting the intellectual and social 'otherness' of the narrator, as in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker or Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (This does raise an unrelated issue, one that's been niggling me for some time: if we're getting to the stage when the majority of people communicate in sub-literate txtspk, how does an author convey the notion that a character is sub-literate? Or will the concept of sub-literacy cease to exist?)
Also, a white mouse plays a more significant role than you might expect (see Zadie Smith's White Teeth and The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams); and the moral ramifications of using medical intervention to take someone to a state of intellectual 'normality' have their echoes in Awakenings by Oliver Sacks. Now, all five of those books were published well after Flowers for Algernon first saw the light of day. But, according to Barthes, they all influenced it, because they affected my reading of it.
By pure serendipity, I just found a quotation from Marcel Duchamp on the Radiohead site Pulk-Pull*:
"All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act."
Now, I don't know whether Duchamp had read 'Death of the Author'; he died just a year after it was published, so the chances are that he didn't. But of course, according to both Barthes and Duchamp, that's a very minor detail.