Sunday, February 07, 2010

I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

This is a young adult novel that's been on my to-do list for a long time. But once I started it (about twenty years late) I zipped through. It's engagingly written, has very short chapters, and is very mysterious--all condusive to compulsive reading. Since I'm teaching adolescent literature this semester I've become increasingly aware of the fact that many college students are still in the stages of reading that I associate with being a teenager (quite a few college students of course still are teenagers or just barely beyond). And one of those stages of reading is taking a great deal of pleasure in solving puzzles. And so in the intro to creative writing class I tend to see quite a few pieces that are meant to be solved with one right answer. These pieces tend to fare well with the other students and much less well with, say, me. Because adult literary readers tend to want puzzles that don't have one right answer. Ambiguity can be great, a mystery with a solution feels a lot less complicated. And students in the lit classes get confused as well--they're still expecting their reading (especially poetry) to be a puzzle to be solved with one right answer. They're not so comfortable with the idea of multiple interpretations each of which has to be argued.

All of which is a long way of getting to my point...this novel is a puzzle to be solved with one right answer and it works; it's a classic. It's a really good puzzle, well executed, surprising in the end...a good example of what can be done with this kind of mystery. And it made me wonder if I am unfair in so regularly rejecting this kind of writing when it comes to literary fiction for adults. A lot of literary novels set up a mystery, gradually reveal clues so that the reader can be actively solving the mystery as they go, and then in the end...they solve the mystery and tell us just what did happen. A genre mystery doesn't really bear rereading because once you know the answer, the text isn't compelling. But a literary mystery can bear rereading because you care about the characters and the language and the ideas... so I guess it's fine to have a puzzle, as long as you also have the other stuff.

With that said, I still maintain my equally strong reaction against ironic endings. I just saw the film A Single Man and my reaction to the last five minutes was to wish I had closed my eyes and plugged my ears for that bit. Liked the movie a lot, but I reject its finish.

1 comment:

Kimba said...

I am a fan of this novel myself. I was assigned Cormier’s "The Chocolate War" for my Lit of Adolescence class, but I saw this one on the shelf and felt its title demanded an explanation, and was glad I took the time... it's difficult enough to find novels that will interest YA males.