Dog Bite Degustation: Cormier's "I Am The Cheese"

on Monday, May 10, 2010
Looking back, I really feel for my high school English teachers. For the most part I just didn't like them and made no bones about letting them know it. I disrupted their classes, refused to read the required texts and handed in whatever I felt like writing rather than what they had set. The ones I did like had it even worse. They were bombarded with short stories and textual analyses, and I made it very clear that I expected a full written response from them every time.

Poor Mrs. Auster had the misfortune of having to read my first two novellas - hilariously naff murder mysteries starring Samuel Snuff and Anson Green (I recently found them while cleaning out the family home) - after I spent the summer holidays between years seven and eight writing them. "The Right Snuff" scored me a gratifying twenty nine out of thirty. As is often the case with sequels, "Stuntmen By The Riverbank" was a slight let down. It only scored twenty seven.

Miss Begley was the next to fall. A charming school marm in the classic mould, she had me for the subject "Writing For Young Authors". I loved the class and made a point of throwing whatever I had tapped out the previous night Miss Begley's way. At first she encouraged my passion. Then she called in my parents. Apparently she was concerned about the contents of my stories. Mum, rather bemusedly, related the conversation back to me that night. "He writes well," Miss Begley had said, "but can't he write more about nice things like fields and flowers? For Bram it's all blood and guts. Is everything alright at home?" To be fair, at the time I was mainly reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz books, with the odd Edgar Allen Poe story thrown in for good measure. And I was a fourteen year old boy.

Other victims of my prolific adolescent scribbling included Mrs. Jensen who, for every year twelve creative writing assignment got thirty to forty page stories as well as my aunt Randi who, while not being my English teacher, was an English teacher and therefore forced to proof-read my first ever attempt at a novel. A hundred or so pages of turgid crap, sputtered out on an old dot matrix printer. She was very gracious with her time but we both knew that the book was going nowhere.

There is only one teacher who successfully tamed me and for whom I will always have a soft spot in my literary heart. Ms. Rapke knew of my reputation as an English menace. She was aware of my love for drama and showing off. She also knew that the only school book I had read was Bridge To Terabithia, although thankfully she didn't know how much I cried whilst doing so. Ms. Rapke hatched an ingenious plot to make me read that year's set English text. "The book is called I Am The Cheese. In two weeks we are going to have run a trial and Bram, you will be the prosecutor."

So began my love affair with Robert Cormier's masterpiece, not to mention my trajectory into the legal world. Since reading this novel almost twenty years ago, I have made a point of revisiting it every year. Now, on what is probably my sixteenth or seventeenth time, it still packs as much of a punch as the first time I read it. I Am The Cheese is the greatest mindfuck of a book I've ever come across. It is a paragon of literary paranoia, where nothing is certain and every page has a sinister twist. It simply beggars belief that this is considered a young adult novel. It is better and far more complex than almost anything written for adults. Ever.

There is only one semi-reliable narrative thread to speak of - Adam Farmer is the sole surviving member of his family and is now in some kind of institution being probed for answers. His father was an investigative journalist who stumbled across some vast conspiracy involving the government, the mafia and God knows who else. He became a key witness in a senate enquiry and then had to go underground as part of a pilot Witness Relocation Program with his wife and child. Pulling the strings throughout was a mysterious government apparatchik, Mr. Grey who, it later turns out, may or may not have sold them down the river.

The book is split into three equally beguiling narratives. There is the simple adventure of Adam riding his bike to deliver a package to his father in Rutterburg, Vermont. Then there are the interviews, where a shadowy doctor (or is he?) called Brint tries to recover Adam's memories. And between the answers there are Adam's memories of his family's terrifying downfall, from happy middle class city folk to secretive, fearful rabbits on the run. I don't want to give away too much, but suffice to say the three tie together in the most creepy way imaginable. The last two chapters, one of which has a Dorothy-back-from-Oz kind of revelation and the other a final psychiatric report are truly mind blowing.

I Am The Cheese was banned in many American schools back in the 1970's. It was said to have inflamed mistrust amongst flag-saluting, allegiance-pledging youngsters. There is no question it introduces kids to some pretty frightening concepts. And there is an air of Clockwork Orange flowing in its veins. But I can't think of a better written, more morally challenging piece of young adult literature out there.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, I won the case. Mr. Grey was found guilty of murder by a jury of my pubescent peers.


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