Childrens’ and young adult literature historically has been full of horror stories. Terrible things happen to children, who must undergo brutal trials and surpass impossible milestones in order to emerge triumphant in the end—that is, to reach adulthood. Despite established expectations, the unsuccessful hero—who undergoes such trials and does not emerge better or matured at the story’s conclusion—is a relatively recent development in young adult literature. Robert Cormier’s works are in large part responsible for encouraging this maturing shift in story and character structure, and his 1977 novel I Am the Cheese is perhaps both the pinnacle and the nadir of the early form of these stories.
A New England-born, bookish child, Cormier grew into a newspaper reporter who wrote fiction in his spare time, at least initially. He published I Am the Cheese three years after his breakthrough 1974 novel The Chocolate War, and both books are similar in many ways. Each tells a story of outsiders trying unsuccessfully to break through the system, although the protagonists of the two novels fail on different levels. The loss of innocence stands as a clear theme in I Am the Cheese, where not only adulthood but also self-knowledge is deferred at all costs.
I Am the Cheese was a turning point in Cormier’s work; he has stated in interviews that he had no intention of being a young adult writer, even if teenagers were his subject matter. While his spare, reporter-like style remained consistent throughout his work, it was not until I Am the Cheese that he seemed to acknowledge that his main audience would be adolescents and young adults. The text features the author’s longtime phone number, and over the years he fielded calls from fans and troubled young people.
Cormier’s acknowledgment of his audience, however, does not make I Am the Cheese an easy or sympathetic read. A first-time reader may find the structure disorienting: The text’s alternating chapters may or may not be telling parallel stories that may or may not run concurrently. As the story progresses, much will come into focus. Even once that happens, however, not until well into the story are the primary characters of the two narratives specifically identified as being the same person. The interior narrative of a boy on a solitary bike ride to see his father in a nearby state seems to have little connection to an at first genderless character being interviewed by someone who may or may not be a therapist. Even for a reader navigating the text for a second or third time, the sequence of events may not be clear. This lack of clarity was the author’s intent, since the book’s final lines circle around to its beginning.
As Cormier’s main character speaks of specific events in his life, a narrative wall prevents full sympathy with him, since he is referred to by multiple...
(The entire section is 1205 words.)