I Am The Cheese – Robert Cormier

31 October 2013
To the end of Tape 5 [OZK05]
Some of the best novels I’ve ever read have been aimed at young adults. I read this one about 30 years ago, not as a young adult, and I’ve been meaning to re-read it because it made such an impression on me then.

About a quarter of the way in, we’ve only recently discovered what the boy’s name is. In the tape transcripts he is A to the questioner’s T, and in the memory thread that goes with the fifth tape the bubbly, sexy Amy calls him Ace. But she’s the sort of girl who would give nicknames. To his parents, and to the narrator of his memories of his early life he is the boy; to the man at the gas station who has never met him before, he’s Skipper. The interviewer doesn’t call him anything. It’s only in Tape 4 or 5 (I think) that we discover his name to be Adam.

How many threads are there? The novel opens as our boy starts on a cycle ride to take a package to his father 70 or so miles away. These sections are narrated in the first person and in the present tense, and alternate with the chapters that include the tape transcripts. We have no real idea how old he is, although on the cycle ride he has recently attempted to telephone Amy, whom he met at the age of 14, knowing that she won’t yet be home from school. That might sound like two threads – taped interviews and cycle ride – but Cormier is making it more complicated than that. During the transcript chapters we are sometimes right inside A’s mind as he makes decisions on the hoof about how he is going to answer the questions, if at all. And when he does begin to describe moments that seem to be important, the transcript format is replaced by a third-person narrative in the past tense that might have come from a far more conventional novel. (This is where we discover his name.) The interviewer responds to these as though A has told him.

I’m mentioning all this because the form is evidently a key part of Cormier’s purpose. I don’t know what the purpose is yet – I only have the vaguest of memories of how the novel ends – but it’s about piecing together some kind of narrative of what has happened to the boy and his father. It was evidently something important, possibly some time when he was aged between nine and 14. We can piece this together because he is living alone with his mother when he meets Amy, and because anything to do with his father seems to interest the questioner in the taped sessions. The important ‘clues’ that A tries to keep hold of relate to his father, but he doesn’t always tell the interviewer what he knows. There’s a conversation he overhears when he is still a young child, one spoken in ‘harsh whispers’ and followed by ‘Shh. You might wake him.’ We have no way of knowing if this is significant, or merely the sign of a marriage in difficulties.

T, the questioner, helpfully summarises what he calls these ‘landmarks’ near the end of the fifth transcript. The first relates to a time when, quite out of the normal run of things, his father swiftly changes the course of their walk to the library and takes a path through the woods. (This leads to a genuinely terrifying encounter with a vicious dog, which seems to have left A with a phobia.) His father appears to have been avoiding someone or something on the street when he ducks into the woods. The second landmark is a telephone conversation he has with Amy, who is speaking to someone from the town where he and his parents used to live and doesn’t remember any man called Farmer, who supposedly worked in insurance. A lies, having remembered a late night bus ride and ‘a sense of hurry’, and pretends they only lived there for a few months. This satisfies Amy, but…

…A is constantly trying, usually unsuccessfully, to hide information from his interviewer as well. Does he know, or does he think he knows, something he believes might incriminate his father? Is the ‘medicine’ he takes at the sanatorium (or wherever) where the interviews take place some kind of sedative or, as he suspects, something more sinister? Why is he referring to medicine in the cycle-ride chapters as well? Why, in this thread, is he on his way to visit his father, now living across two borders in another state? Are the apparent links – the attack by a dog, the phone call to Amy – more than mere coincidences? When is this ride taking place?

I’ll get back to you.

23 August 2014
To the end of Tape 11 [OZK011]
The novel passes its half-way point some time during this chapter, and important things seem to be happening. It has become clearer that T is, or appears to be, some kind of psychiatrist helping the boy to remember something that he is keeping locked up in his memory. The boy is less determined to hide things from him, and by Tape 7 or 8 there seems to be a growing sense of co-operation between them. But, as on the cycle ride things suddenly become difficult, even terrifying, he suddenly clams up. Tapes 9 and 10 contain nothing but T’s vain attempts to get him to speak. Then, possibly owing to the injections that have made his arm so sore he complains about them, things improve. On the cycle ride he is rescued from some bullies who have caused his bike to veer off the road and into a ditch. And on the tape the boy opens right up again. By the end of Tape 11 he has confronted his father, who has done some opening up of his own. The boy tells T that he is Paul Delmonte, a name T has earlier attempted to get him to recognise. T asks the boy what else his father told him. ‘Everything…’ he replies, and that’s how this tape ends.

Cormier is careful to make sure that the reader finds things out as the boy uncovers them for himself, so we never know any more than he does. Except… we know that there’s a long way to go yet. On his ride to Vermont he might be only a short way from his destination, and on the tapes we might be about to find out what his father told him…. But there are still 100 pages left, and I get the feeling that Adam – or Paul, or whoever he really is – is a long way from uncovering the secret he’s been so determined to keep locked inside himself.

It’s masterful, and what I like best about it is the way things are revealed to the reader. To some extent Cormier is ‘T’ to the reader’s ‘A’, making us piece things together for ourselves. But he is playing a different game – unless T’s role is not that of a helpful psychiatrist after all, which wouldn’t surprise me – because he constantly wrong-foots the reader. The novel, and each chapter, begins with realistically described details of a cycle-ride. We know where we are. Except we don’t, as the events on the road begin to mirror aspects of the progress of the interviews. The bullies, the ‘wise-guys’ who make his life difficult on the road in Chapters 8-10, exactly match his difficulties in overcoming some kind of mental block. In the diner where they first pick on him he wishes the jukebox could play ‘The farmer in the dell’, the song that has kept him going whenever things have become difficult on the trip. Except, of course, soon ‘Farmer’ won’t have the same resonance…. Later, when all seems lost, he is pulled out of the ditch and given a lift by a kindly driver in spite of his wife’s protests. Is this a real cycle-ride at all? Do the wife’s protests in the station-wagon relate to the boy’s mother, and her unease concerning the stories they have been telling him all these years?

This comes out in Chapter 11. The partially-suppressed suspicions we’ve known about almost from the start, the ones that he begins by lying about in his interviews, appear to be correct. And things are even worse than he had suspected. There is a ‘grey man’, the vague memory of whom seems to trigger the crisis, who visited his father ‘a couple of times a month’. He is Mr Grey – except he isn’t, because he overhears his parents referring to him as Thompson. Ok. And, when he picks up the other phone when his mother is making one of her weekly calls, he discovers that the story about his having no living relatives is false: the woman on the line wants to know all about how her ‘nephew’ is getting on. During a hurried search of a drawer that is always kept locked he discovers he has two birth certificates, identical except for dates five months apart….

He tells his parents, who have clearly been waiting for this moment, that he knows they haven’t been telling him the truth. His father agrees to spill the beans, and this is how things stand at the end of Tape 11. The boy thinks he’s got to the bottom of it, and, to some extent, the reader is as mystified and intrigued as he is. But… why should we believe anything he is about to be told with so much of the novel still to run?

[Later]
To the boy’s arrival at the motel, before Tape 15 [OZK015]
I love this book. As the truth – if that’s what it is – about the fugitive life of the boy and his family becomes more unbearable, the cycle-ride becomes more and more nightmarish. It appears that his father really did want to put an end to the deception, as he spends many days explaining that, essentially, they are guinea-pigs in an experimental new witness protection scheme. Most of their conversations take place on long walks where there will be no listeners, and what his father tells him of is the high-level corruption he uncovered when he was a small-town newspaper reporter. A failed attempt to bomb the car and another to have him shot make it clear that they will have to leave the town. The half-remembered moonlight flit was real, and it soon becomes clear why his parents couldn’t tell a young boy the truth.

But now there’s another possibility. The boy strongly suspects that T, also known as Brint, has his own agenda. It may well be that what he is searching for isn’t some kind of closure for the boy but useful information he might still have locked inside his memory. T’s responses to these suspicions might not be as blandly neutral as they appear: ‘You must avoid these needless doubts – they only delay the process of discovery and then you are left with those terrifying blanks.’ They could be taken almost as a threat, warning the boy to co-operate or suffer the consequences. This comes from the interview on Tape 12, but from now on neither the boy nor the reader can be sure whose side T is on. In an interview mainly focusing on his mother, the boy remembers her worries about ‘Them’, and the relentless anxiety of the ‘Never Knows’. Nothing and nobody can be trusted.

When the boy has known for some weeks about the new lives his parents have been forced into, it begins to strain his relationship with Amy. (Remember her?) He would love to tell her the truth, but knows he can’t mention even the tiniest detail for fear of it leading to everything flooding out. And he has just returned home after going along with one of her practical jokes – they suddenly seem rather childish now – when his mother tells him they will have to leave for a few days. This will be the third time, but the first when he knows why they are suddenly off on one of their unexpected trips. He sees the strain on his father as he speaks about the long weekend they will spend away: ‘His face was haggard and his eyes wary and haunted and the bright enthusiastic voice was a sharp contrast.’ He is horrified to realise that his father is speaking like this because he doesn’t trust the walls of his own house – and that he’s had to play this terrible game for ten years.

Meanwhile, on the cycle-ride…. The journey had begun as a schoolboy adventure, but it is acquiring a nastier and nastier edge. We’ve already had the ‘wise-guys’, and now we have the theft of the bicycle and the seedy alley the boy goes down to look for it. He meets a fat, sweating resident from a freak-show, who drops obscene hints about the ‘ree-ward’ he might hope for if he tells him where the bike went. But in the end he tells him the name of the thief and where he lives. The boy, against the odds – we are no longer in the realms of any kind of realistic narrative – is able to wrestle the bicycle from him. In the interview that follows, he goes much further than ever before in uncovering the truth about his family’s life, up to the point when they go away on their trip.

And the next stage of the cycle-ride brings the threads closer together than ever. The motel where he intends to stay is the one he stayed at with his parents ‘last year’, which is the first reference there has ever been to a time-frame for this journey. Every bone in his body ‘seethes with pain and weariness’, and he looks forward to staying in the same cabin…. But the motel is closed, and the man at the gas-station across the road says it has been closed for maybe three years. Ah. And when he tries to ring Amy for the second time that day, he gets the same stranger as the first time answering the phone. When the boy tells him he had phoned it the previous day, the man says he’s had the number ‘for three years.’

I’ve got a bad feeling about this. There are two more tapes to go, and two more stages of the cycle-ride. I don’t think this boy is going anywhere good.

[Later]
To the end
He isn’t going anywhere at all. Three heavily-sedated years in some kind of sanatorium have provided the boy with the personnel for his fantasy of cycling: the dog, the wise-guys, the fat man who sweats behind his cage-like balcony and the man who calls him Skipper. Here is the bike, which he is allowed to ride around on so long as he doesn’t try to leave, and here is the package he wants to deliver to his father – which turns out to contain items from his lost childhood, shown to him once by his mother….

Before this we’ve had the final interview tape. All is well on the first night of the trip, with cosy memories of singing ‘The farmer in the dell’ and the three of them in the motel room. But, next day, comes the trauma that’s pushed him so deep into himself he’s never going to get out. T pushes him to say what he is remembering and the reader is able to re-live the horror by way of the third-person narrative that has been used throughout. As ever, we don’t hear the boy’s words unless quoted as play-script, but we know that he is telling T what he remembers about what happens after a car crashes into them. We get the obscene angle of his mother’s neck as she slides down its fender and his own pain as he lies on the gravel. And, crucially, we realise that the boy is never able to see what happened to his father….

…but then Cormier allows his own narrative convention to make things highly ambiguous. ‘He finally turned his head slightly and swivelled his eyes to see – / T: What did you see? / Him. Him. Walking toward him and his mother, tall, saw him tall, taller than ever…. / T: Tell me. It’s important.’ And so on. But we are never quite sure what the boy says. Does he tell T about the voice he recognises, the words the man says and, crucially, the sight that fills his field of vision as he comes close? ‘Grey pants. Him.’ The tape ends with T’s attempts to make him speak separated by five-second intervals. ‘Who? Who? / You must not retreat now. / You must not retreat.’ And so on. Finally, after a 30-second interval: ‘Let the record show: no response.’

It’s impossible to know whether the boy actually says that the man who orchestrated this little scene was a familiar figure dressed in his habitual grey. The reader knows that the man who was protecting them – because that has always been Grey’s role – is the one who betrays them. But the boy never names him, and perhaps this is enough of a loophole for T. It’s a common plot device in thrillers about corruption at the top, confirming the suspicions of the boy’s mother that absolutely nobody is to be trusted.

After this, we get the sanatorium scene – in which, interestingly, the boy considers himself to be ‘Adam’, not recognising the ‘Paul’ that Dr Dupont calls him. (The third-person narration always refers to him as Adam, even after he discovers he is really Paul Delamonte. Now we know why.) The section ends with the doctor encouraging him to sing ‘The farmer in the dell’ to comfort himself, and with a bitter take on its last line: ‘Heigh-ho the merry-o, / The cheese stands alone…. I smile as I sing because I know, of course, who I am, who I will always be. / I am the cheese.’

Tape 16, the last in the book, is a routine signing-off following this attempt to elicit information about ‘Personnel #2222’. This is the code-name for Grey that the boy’s father had always known and, for the third year in succession, the boy has been unable to tell them what the reader knows to be locked in his consciousness. So the recommendation is for #2222 to be reinstated, as his adherence to procedures following the ‘terminations’ of the boy’s parents was exemplary, and there has only ever been ‘circumstantial evidence’ that he betrayed their whereabouts.

Cormier saves a couple of killer-blows for last. The tape ends with the recommendation that ‘Subject A’s confinement be continued until termination is approved; or… Subject A’s condition be sustained until Subject A obliterates.’ They’re going to kill him, or keep him sedated until he dies of old age. And, on the final page, ‘I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts….’

We’re back to the opening of the novel, and the whole of the first paragraph is repeated verbatim. Who knows how many times he is going to try to deliver a package representing the world before the catastrophe to a man he will always believe to be alive?

And is this book as good as I remember? Yes it is.

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One Response to I Am The Cheese – Robert Cormier

  1. Yes, Cormier’s greatest book. A stunning masterpiece of delusion and intricate deception. And a critical analysis worthy of it.
    Patty Campbell, author of Robert Cormier: Daring to Disturb the Universe.

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