Constant Reader Book of The Month September: Robert Cormier Feature
He Created The Modern YA. Why is He Almost Forgotten Today?
When I was in sixth grade, I was already an avid reader but my tastes in reading were divided between the assigned reading of middle school, books so detailed I read without comprehension and books that were too young for me. Then that April, I was in the school library, and I found a copy of I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. I basically devoured over the course of the next week. Then I began to read other books of his and books by similar authors. Cormier was my official introduction into my adulthood reading.
In my opinion, there’s a good argument that Robert Cormier was the first modern YA author. You could argue for Madeline L’Engle or C.S. Lewis but most of their best-known work was in the fantasy genre. (Outside of The Wrinkle of Time series, L’Engle actually stayed closer to modern times but I didn’t learn that it until years later.) Cormier is one of the first writers I’ve ever seen to take on the dark overtones of teenagers in a way that is now the norm is so many of the novels I read. The pessimism that pervades so much of the genre today is no doubt built on the anxiety of the age we live in; when Cormier began doing it in the 1970s and 1980s, he must have seemed like an revolutionary. And he really went to dark territory in his novels; it’s not that there are no happy endings for any of the characters in his books; it’s that so many of them seem to point out just how dark and futile the path for anybody in his world (mostly rural New England) must face.
And he doesn’t aim for normal settings. The Bumblebee Flies Anyway takes place in a center dealing with terminally ill children. After the First Death involved a hostage situation by terrorists at a military school. And many of his leads have impossible situations — Heroes deals with a soldier who returns from World War II with his face blown off; Tenderness with a young man released from juvenile detention having served time for murdering his mother and stepfather; We All Fall Down opens with four teenage boys invading a home to commit vandalism and then assaulting one of the residents who arrives at home.
The most famous of Cormier’s novels is The Chocolate War, the story of fifteen-year-old Jerry Renault act of rebellion in a Catholic boarding school ruled by a dictatorial priest and controlled by a secret organization of teenagers. This book has been banned in libraries almost since its release, even though there is no overt violence, sex or profanity; the usual reasons for banning books. The more likely reason is because of its depiction of characters who represent the church or perhaps because it argues for the questioning of authority. If the people who banned this book actually read it (something I always question) they might also have terrified by the fact that the most important characters were among the most frightening depictions of evil to that point and have rarely been equaled in their horror since. (I’m actually going to deal with them later on.)
Cormier set the bar for so many of the writers who work in YA today. Why then does he have so literal cultural impact? Almost every ‘classic’ gets turned into movies or TV, but the only film versions of Cormier I know about are I am The Cheese and The Chocolate War, both of which are inferior because they are disorganized and don’t have the bravery to go through with the unhappy endings that Cormier is famous for.
Perhaps it is because so many of his novel are fundamentally center on white teenage boys with almost no female characters who have lead roles greater than love interest. (The sole exception I recall is We All Fall Down.) Perhaps the general pessimism of Cormier is so hard for Hollywood even now to do right that few would dare touch them. But in the age of Peak TV, it might well be time to consider adaptations of his work. So, to give Cormier his due, I’m going to break my own rule and consider three of his novels and why I consider them masterpieces.
I Am the Cheese is one of the most disorienting books for any reader to try and get in to. The central character is Adam Farmer, who is fifteen years old and about to ride his bicycle seventy miles to a facility to find out what happened to his father. We know very little about why he thinks he’ll be there. The novels follow him on his bike through restaurants and apartments and the longer his trip goes on, we begin to wonder what is truly behind this journey.
On a separate track, we follow Adam through a series of taped therapy sessions. He’s clearly been a patient, and he keeps complaining about pills and shots to help him sleep. The therapist’s name is Britt, and he seem nice and polite. Except… when we see dictated version of the recording, the ‘therapist’ is referred to as ‘T’, not B. And the longer the sessions go on, the more is clear that the therapist is trying to lead Adam somewhere. Somewhere he doesn’t want to go.
What we learn through these sessions is that Adam is realize that his life with his parents has been a lie, and that his parents have been deceiving him for reasons that happened when he was just a baby. I won’t tell you what the reasons were, because you should find out for yourself. What I will tell you is the closer we get to the end, the more we realize that both tracts we have been following are fundamentally false and that Adam himself is unaware of it. The last twenty pages are among the most devastating I’ve ever read in YA fiction. (I must confess the first half-dozen times I read them I found a lot of it incomprehensible, especially the last page.) But when you realize the full picture of what Adam has been going through it is heartbreaking, because it is clear Adam doesn’t and never will.
A year after I devoured I Am the Cheese, I was a Cormier nut. At one point I was delighted to find in a bookstore: We All Fall Down and Fade and bought them both. Both novels are exceptional but, in my opinion, Fade is as close to a magnum opus as Cormier ever got, which is odd because it’s the only novel of his that in a nature is as close to genre fiction as he tried.
The novel opens in 1938 and we are hearing the story of a thirteen-year-old boy named Paul in Depression Massachusetts. He is experiencing some of the normal levels of puberty (he erupts to ecstasy at the beauty of a twenty-ish cousin) and stranger things. Eventually he learns from his uncle that he has the ability to ‘fade’ or become invisible. It is something that seems to be passed down from generation to generation. His uncle is dismayed when he learns the truth: “He was looking at me with the saddest eyes I’d ever seen”, Paul says. And at one point, he says he considers it ‘the opposite of a gift’.
Paul very quickly learns what he means. His newfound invisibility shows him the secrets of his neighborhood, except most of them are the kind of things that you don’t want to know. At one point, he does the inevitable and uses the fade to see an attractive older teenager take her clothes off. What follows is one of the most shocking scenes I’ve ever seen in YA fiction or even mainstream fiction. (If this scene ended up getting the book banned, this is one case I can’t blame the parents.) Worse, the more he uses the fade, the more it seems to bring out a psychosis in him and there are consequences beyond even that.
Except…that’s not the whole story. A third of the way through the novel, the book changes perspective to Marie more than half a century later. She is Paul’s twenty-ish niece, and her uncle who became a world-renowned author has been dead for more than twenty years. What we have just read is a manuscript he never published. Marie wonders if there is any truth, and turns to her father, Paul’s brother who was alive during that time. In a twenty-five-page section, her father completely dismissed the novel as anything but fiction. Understandably, he dismisses invisibility on the first page, but he then goes through each character and scenario Paul described in the manuscript and tells us that all of them did not happen as he described. Some examples may be questionable, but it’s hard to argue when two different people remember a relative completely differently.
From this point on, we no longer know whose version of the truth is reliable. When Paul’s publisher produces another part of the same manuscript and we spent the majority of the novel reading this, we no longer know if Paul is trustworthy. At another point in the novel, he learns that there is another young boy who has the same ability he does — and in the next section, the narrative which has been entirely first-person switches to third person and eventually keeps jumping between them.
Fade is a masterwork not only of horror, but of young adult fiction. More than any Cormier novel I read; we constantly question something that few people my age would have done for any book at that time. Is the narrator of the novel telling us the truth? If he isn’t, why would he live and if he is, how do we explain all the discrepancies? We leave the novel as confused as Marie is about the truth and what it might mean if it is. Cormier’s novels traditionally end in despair; this is the only one I know where we are fundamentally questioning which version of despair is more comforting.
All that said, I think my favorite Robert Cormier novel is Beyond the Chocolate War. It is the rare sequel that I actually believe is superior to the original for reasons I couldn’t define at the time but can now do so. For all the brilliance of The Chocolate War, it follows a traditional path of a heroic youth trying to stand against authority: Jerry’s stand against Brother Leon and the Vigils over the annual chocolate sale. ‘Do I dare disturb the universe?” shows up repeatedly in the novel and at its end, Jerry has decided it’s better not too — a sad ending, but at least its one where we take comfort that he at least fought the good fight.
Beyond the Chocolate War is another animal entirely. Jerry is reduced to a minor character, not even seen for the first part of the book and only occasionally showing up throughout. Rather the novel chooses to focus almost entirely on the Vigils, the power structure within it and the inner rebellion against the assigner Archie Costello.
Brother Leon and Archie Costello are among the most frightening characters in literature because they seem to have no moral center at all. Leon is essentially the dictator of Trinity, using the cloak of religion much in the Calvinist fashion, believing that he must force good into all of the other students and all of them must believe in his power. Anyone, student or teacher, who does anything to threaten his authority is removed as an obstacle and he seems utterly incapable of any kind of inner light. At one point Archie and he have a conversation and Archie has his clearest insight to the man — and how he views the world:
“I love this school, Costello.”
Like a criminal loves his crime, Archie thought. That was the reason for the world’s agony and the reason crime — and sin — would always prevail. Because the criminal loves his crime. That’s why rehabilitation was impossible. You had to get rid of the love, the passion first. And that would never happen.”
Leon views the school as his personal fiefdom and that everyone — students and faculty alike — are his to control. Near the end of the novel, he is attacked by a student he manipulated and helped psychologically destroy and not only does he not call for help, but he also makes sure he’s there for a school’s events activities that night. In a memorial for that student later on, he uses the attack to shame all the students and faculty for his own sins, absolving himself of all responsibility. (The scene ends with the only act of open rebellion to Leon in the novel. It is one of the only signs of optimism in the entire book.)
Brother Leon is frightening in what he represents, but at the very least readers of the time could comprehend him — the figure of authority, gone mad with power would have fit it very well with the post-Vietnam Watergate era. But what could readers have made of Archie Costello, a character who glides through the anarchy and destruction he causes as Trinity with little regard for even the people who are fundamental loyal with him. I don’t know if Archie would have read Machiavelli, but he surely understood the concept that ‘it is better to be feared than loved’. At one point in the novel, he has been forced to take on the role of ‘Fool’, the person who everybody either kicks in the ass or dunks in the water. Not one student dares do either. That is the aura that Archie has.
Terms like ‘sociopath’ or even ‘psychopath’ don’t seem adequate in categorizing Archie. He doesn’t seem entirely human. He likes having the power of giving assignments and creating anarchy, but he rarely is present for the damage he does; only hearing about it secondhand. He seems surprised that his second-in-command Obie is ‘distracted’ by being in love. He has a relationship with a girl from another school, but you get the feeling that not only does he not emotionally connect, even the physical part of it is going through the motions. He feels no responsibility for the consequences of any of the actions that take place — even when an assignment he orders leads to an elderly brother’s death or when Obie’s girlfriend is assaulted by a loyal follower acting on what he thought were his orders. At a critical point Obie asks Archie if he hates this school:
Archie registered surprise: “I don’t hate anything or anybody.”
Obie sensed the sincerity in Archie’s reply…Do you love anything or anybody? Or is it just you don’t have any feelings at all?
The thing is, just a few pages earlier, we get our answer. A massive heat wave strikes the area:
Archie loved the heat. He loved it because other people were so uncomfortable…All in all, Archie felt a certain satisfaction with the heat wave.
One other student does feel the heat either. It’s the character who has resolved to kill Brother Leon and then himself. I don’t know if Cormier was essentially linking Archie to a terrorist leader by this comparison, but it’s hard to ignore.
Cormier goes to great lengths in both of the Chocolate War novels to give backstories and establish sympathy for not only minor characters, but even some of the villains. Emil Janza, who everybody considers muscle and nothing else (he beats down Jerry in two separate situations in each novel) clearly has a soul and an intellect that no one in the Vigils want to even know about. As much time as we spend with Archie Costello in both novels, we come away knowing nothing of his backstory, what happened to make him absence the usual human emotions. This must be a deliberate choice by Cormier: we know how the monster thinks but not why.
I have gone to this point in my narration on Beyond the Chocolate War and not given anything resembling a traditional summary of it. I don’t think I will. I will say for those of you who think you need to read The Chocolate War in order to appreciate the sequel, I actually think you don’t. It helps you understand why many of the characters in this book are reacting the way they are — even the Vigils have been severely shaken by the consequences of the first book. But at the end of the day, while it helps to have read the first book, Cormier does a decent job given bare bones as to why it was so important but why, considering everything that happens in the sequel, it was fundamentally irrelevant to the action that follows.
All you basically need to know about Beyond the Chocolate War is that people in the Vigils are beginning to actively hate as well as fear Archie. This leads them to do things they would not think themselves capable of. In a sense these acts of rebellion matter. In another sense they don’t, because you get the feeling that Archie truly is omniscient.
There are two things that occur to me having read this novel. Given all the power Archie has over the Vigils, why has he limited all the assignments to mere disruptions rather than trying to destroy the hold Brother Leon has over this school? Two reasons occur to me, neither comforting. The first is that Archie wanted to have an alibi for when the destruction happened — he implies as much at a critical moment. The other is just as troubling. Archie enjoyed the chaos he caused at Trinity, and now that he’s done with the school, he has no problem or regrets about burning it down.
The second is more interesting: What kind of man did Archie become? I have some ideas. Maybe he moved to Albuquerque, developed a relationship with a drug cartel and decided to build up a front — a chicken restaurant — so that no one would suspect who he was. (Archie is much closer in his behavior to Gus Fring than Walter White.) Maybe he moved to New Jersey and became involved in waste management. Here’s the most likely — and terrifying scenario: he ran for Congress, well prepared to work behind the scenes and then willing to manipulate anyone to get the highest office in the land. (You have to admit Claire Underwood is perfectly matched with Archie in nature.) Peak TV is filled with shows that have characters who aren’t nearly as frightening as Archie as a teenager.
I think that it is more than time for Cormier to start get some limited series of his own. I’d suggest turning both Chocolate War books into a three season limited series. There are, of course, the problems that most of the characters in the novels are white males, but I don’t think anyone cares that much if color blind casting is involved. As for Brother Leon — Bryan Cranston has nothing to do right now.