Critical reaction to I Am the Cheese has taken two directions. Many readers find the novel a mind-boggling, deliberately confusing detective story with no real “solution,” written far beyond young adults’ level of sophistication. The other view holds that Cormier has created a fascinating experimental work of fiction that realistically mirrors modern society and the confusing predicament of adolescents growing up in a sinister world.
Whether Cormier intends to mislead the reader is subject to debate. Certainly, Adam’s disorientation and his confusion of two pasts and two presents constitute the major elements of the novel’s structure. While Cormier may not directly impede the reader’s grasp of the plot, he provides very few clues, and these appear late in the book. Some readers find that a second reading of the novel considerably clears up the ambiguity.
The author juggles time frames in an interesting way. Two lines of action occur in the present: Adam’s imprisonment or treatment in Brint’s institution and Adam’s bicycle ride around the grounds as he imagines himself pedaling to Rutterburg. Two accounts of the past intermingle with the dual action of the present: Adam’s life in Monument and his other past, growing up as Paul Delmonte in Pennsylvania.
Adam’s past is surely as ambiguous as his present. Is he Paul or Adam? Did the events he recalls occur or are they imaginary? Are his memories selective in the sense that they help suppress other real events? What past is it that Brint is trying to evoke?
The alternating strains of narrative and tape transcripts add to the uncertainty, but eventually some outline of events emerges. Cormier’s method resembles the creation of a mosaic picture: he adds one small piece at a time until a recognizable shape of events appears. In this way, the novel’s structure reflects its theme of disorientation and interruption.
As in his other novels, Cormier uses symbolism and allusion, yet he exercises more restraint in this work, possibly because the reader is already burdened with the task of unraveling the plot and characters. Cormier often employs names for their suggested meaning. The name “Brint” brings to mind “flint” and “glint”-hardness and the light from an object such as a knife-implying the character’s machine-like dedication to dissecting Adam’s psyche.
The protagonist’s names suggest various analogies as well. The innocent “Adam,” much like the biblical Adam, sets out in a world where corruption and deceit taint the landscape. As “Paul,” he recalls the apostle St. Paul because he is truly his father’s disciple, continuing his work and pursuing the truth. The name “Farmer” echoes the author’s central symbolic device, the nursery rhyme “Farmer in the Dell.” The rhyme tells Adam’s story in deceptively simple terms-all the farm figures are eliminated until Adam “stands alone” as the cheese. Furthermore, the rhyme keeps returning to its beginning, and the novel returns to the opening words “I am riding my bicycle.” Again, Cormier emphasizes the futility of his protagonist’s attempt to break the cycle of persecution and corruption.
Some readers also attach symbolic meaning to Amy Hertz’s name, claiming that she is part of the conspiracy and that her name indicates that she “hurts” Adam. Cormier disputes this interpretation, but given the novel’s uncertain reality, it is difficult to altogether dismiss this theory.
The people Adam encounters during his journey stand for the threats of a hostile world and for Adam’s betrayal. The dogs, which are prominent in the plot, require a closer look. Regardless of how many there are or which, if any, are real, the canines repeat the image of relentless pursuit by Adam’s father’s enemies who “hound” both father and son.
On the whole, Cormier applies both structure and symbolism to create an emotional and thematic landscape. He effectively imparts the confusion and fear, as well as the hopelessness, against which his young hero struggles.