Robert Cormier’s “I Am the Cheese”, Essay Example
Robert Cormier’s novel ‘I am the Cheese’ is a profoundly disturbing and affecting work of fiction. It relates the story of Adam Farmer, a teenaged boy who is, at least on the surface, taking a bicycle ride to find his father. As the novel progresses, we discover that the actual circumstances which face Adam are much more different and dangerous than they would at first appear. He is actually institutionalised in what appears to be some kind of mental hospital. As the story moves on, we realise that the ‘hospital’ is not necessarily one where the primary purpose is to care for people. Instead, it is revealed that Adam and his family have been at the centre of a conspiracy which seems to encompass organised crime, state corruption and the involvement of government intelligence agencies. All of these circumstances are portrayed as having entirely negative influence on individuals, reducing them to little more than ciphers. This paper will argue that Cormier’s depictions and descriptions in the novel show an entirely pessimistic and negative view of the impact of repressive regimes on individuals, and also that his overall view of humanity’s place in the world is one of fear and alienation.
The first thing to consider in support of this argument is the situation which engulfed Adam’s father. Adam’s father was a journalist who found evidence of corruption and wrongdoing. His real name is Paul Delmonte, and before he was taken into the witness protection programme which so destroys Adam’s life, he was a journalist. During his work as a journalist, he discovers evidence of corruption and conspiracy. This discovery catapults his family into the nightmare scenario detailed in the novel. Their identity is changed, supposedly for their own protection, and they are moved to a new town, where they must live under assumed identities. Many novels aimed at a teenaged audience reflect on the disconnect felt between different generations in a family. Cormier here though chooses to focus on how a family is torn apart by external rather than internal forces, highlighting the negative role played by an oppressive regime in destroying any collective sense of identity that they feel, which in turn leads to a complete disintegration of individual identity in Adam. Perhaps his avoidance of the usual kind of family conflict in teenage fiction can be traced to Cormier’s assertion that he never attempted to write specifically for teenagers. He said, “I’ve had such success it would be a betrayal of my readers to say the Young Adult label has been detrimental. It is the most demanding, most critical audience in the world. Though I’m always puzzled how anyone can set out to write for a 14-year-old. With my books it just happens that’s who they end up for. I simply write with an intelligent reader in mind. But then I’ve always maintained that I am just an arrested adolescent myself.” (The Guardian, August 2000) Cormier does not seem to see the family as the problem, as many writers for adolescents do. Rather, the institution of the family is another victim of the nefarious actions of the state.
The alienating effect of the witness protection programme on Adam’s mother provides perhaps the most affecting and poignant example of Cormier’s view of governmental regimes. It is Adam’s mother who in the end tells him the story of how they came to be in the witness protection programme, and the sad and devastating consequences of that involvement can be seen in almost everything that she says. There is no salvation for Adam’s mother in knowing that, like his father did, she acted in an ethical and patriotic way. As she says, “I’ve always been proud of your father and the decision he made back then. In many ways, it’s been worse for him, because he loved newspaper work so much…So we came here and tried to make the best of it. We even drilled ourselves. To be careful. To never use our real names for instance.” (p. 171) Her only consolation is that at least they were allowed to remain as Roman Catholics, an almost pathetic concession to their previous lives, that one senses was only granted as an afterthought by Grey and his bosses. “So you see, we kept out religion,” Adam’s mother states. (p. 171) She also dies in the car accident which Mr Grey may or may not have arranged for the family. She is in every way a victim, and not even her clear strength and sense of rebelliousness against the witness protection programe can save her. The fact that Adam sees her as strong only serves to emphasise the terrible and brutal power of the government agencies. As Adam states, “Funny about my mother. All my life, from the time I was just a little kid, I thought of her as a sad person. I mean, the way some people are tall or fat or skinny. My father always seemed the stronger one. As if he was a bright color and she was a faded color…But later, when I learned the truth about our lives, I found she was still sad. But strong, too. Not faded at all. It wasn’t sadness so much as fear.” (p. 169 – 170) The real consequences of becoming involved in the witness protection programme can be seen in the chilling final evaluation of Adam by the hospital authorities. They recommend, “Subject A’s confinement be continued until termination procedures are approved; or (b) Subject A’s condition be sustained until Subject A obliterates.” (p.232) Cormier’s negative view of government agencies and those organisations who seek to maintain state power is perhaps best summed up by this frighteningly impersonal statement.
The characters of Brint and Grey also give readers an insight into how Cormier feels about the agents of repressive regimes. Adam’s conversations with Brint always feel sinister, like there are hidden forces at work which both Adam and the reader are only dimly aware of. These conversations, transcribed as taped interviews in the novel, never seem to be for Adam’s benefit either. One example of the uncertainty and fear which surrounds the exchanges between Adam and Brint occurs in TAPE OZK004. Adam states, “Well, I’ve taken it for granted that you are a doctor, a psychiatrist maybe. That first session – you said your name is Brint. But you didn’t say, ‘Doctor Brint.’ And this place seems to be a hospital. But is it?” (p. 34) Of course, by the end of the novel we are left in little or no doubt that Brint is not working for Adam’s benefit. Adam is merely another resource to be exploited for the nebulous purposes of the shadowy forces for whom the likes of Brint and Grey work. In many ways, this recalls the work of film maker David Lynch, whose films often revolve around a journey like Adam’s, and on a disconnect between perceived and actual reality, in order to create a sense of horrific unease. Like Cormier’s novel, they feature characters whose purpose, provenance and even existence are often unclear. As Lynch himself described the character of Bob in his TV series, ‘Twin Peaks’, “an abstraction with a human form.” (Lynch on Lynch, p. 178) Grey and Brint can almost be described in the same way. They represent the dehumanising aspects of government conspiracy, as though they themselves have also lost any identity that they had beyond their roles. Grey’s portrayal recalls the shadowy government agents of more recent television series such as ‘The X Files’. Reflecting a general unease with this sort of situation which has grown generally since Cormier first published the novel. In many ways, the ‘Cigarette Smoking Man’ of ‘The X Files’ is a populist update of Grey. A man who seems to exist only on the margins, yet he wields tremendous power. Cormier’s depiction of government agents in this way shows how he feels about their negative effects on ordinary people. This sense of alienation with the way that the American government agencies work is perhaps best summed up by the way in which it allows ‘termination’ of own citizens, plus the ‘obliteration’ of Adam at the end. There is no caring helping hand here from the state. Citizens are merely there to be exploited, and the aims of the government are not theirs to discover or to understand. Grey, by contrast, uses his power to protect the already powerful and to save himself from contamination.
The mundanity of family life in the novel shows how easy it is for anyone to end up like this. Cormier’s own small town background perhaps makes it easier for him to juxtapose the horror and mundanity in this way. Cormier lived in the town where he was born for his whole life. “For 30 years he worked as a journalist on the local paper, covering everything from the police news to the births, deaths and weddings,” according to an interview with The Guardian newspaper. (2000) This knowledge of small town America pervades the book, from the descriptions of diners, to the faces of bullies, to the scenery which Adam passes through on his journey. The mundane details which Cormier provides help to put the novel’s horror into a truly disturbing context. Adam’s family seem to him to be a part of this mundane world, like any other family, which helps to Cormier to make his point about the alienation of society even more potent. The Farmers are not on the outside any different to many other New England families. The dark secret at their heart tears them apart though, in a frightening way which stresses the impotence of the family to cope with all the dark things that a state or government can throw at them. The sense of the Farmer’s powerlessness is perhaps the most frightening thing about the novel. Cormier himself outlined his view of the world in an interview with School Library Journal, “I’m very much interested in intimidation, and the way people manipulate other people. And the obvious abuse of authority.” (quoted in Random House author profile). Intimidation is used on the Farmers to an intense degree, even as the government claims it is protecting them.
In conclusion, it can be seen that Cormier’s novel is profoundly pessimistic about humanity and its place in a modern world of secret states and nebulous organisations. The contradictions and paradoxes between living in a ‘free’ society yet having so many shadowy figures working away to seemingly limit freedoms are perfectly shown in this novel. In many ways, its pessimistic view of the powerlessness of the individual when confronted with the ‘gray men’ matches with the experience of the United States since 9/11. One wonders how many Adam Farmers there are in the United States now, as the war on terror takes its toll. This is little or no hope on offer from Cormier, and his portrayal of ordinary people as hapless pawns in some kind of wider conspiracy provides no optimism for readers of the novel. It is therefore entirely justified to state that Cormier feels that wider loyalty to nations and governments is misplaced; our primary duties in life are to ourselves and our families. Power protects power, and the ordinary people, abused and misused by those with power, whether corporate, legal or governmental, are largely insignificant. Cormier is at heart an Anarchist, a man who sees the State in terms described by the great Anarchist writer, Peter Kropotkin. “It was by massacre, the wheel, the gibbet, the sword and the fire that church and State established their domination, and that they succeeded henceforth to reign over an incoherent agglomeration of ‘subjects’ who had no more direct union among themselves.” (Anarchism, p. 132)
Cormier, Robert, I am the Cheese, Puffin edition, 1998
Kropotkin, Peter, ‘Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings’, Dover, 2002
Rodely, Chris, ‘Lynch on Lynch’, Faber and Faber, 2005
Gardner, Lyn, ‘Dead Bodies in Suburbia’, The Guardian, 08/19/2000, retrieved from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2000/aug/19/booksforchildrenandteenagers, 04/23/2013
Gardner, Lyn, ‘Obituary – Robert Cormier’, The Guardian, 11/06/2000, retrieved from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2000/nov/06/guardianobituaries.books, 04/23/2013
Random House author profile, ‘Robert Cormier’, retrieved from: http://www.randomhouse.com/author/5740/robert-cormier, 04/23/2013
Time is precious
don’t waste it!