As in his other novels, Cormier’s primary aim in this work is to confront and examine the plight of young adults enmeshed in a world of corruption and deceit, where no one, not even the government, can be trusted and where the terms “hero” and “villain” have little if any meaning. Yet Cormier is not simply exposing the reader to a “rotten” world. He strives to make young people aware of the important choices they must make between idealism and realism, hope and resignation, action and apathy. To make these choices in a society full of uncertainty is difficult.
I Am the Cheese focuses on government, both overt and covert, and its impact on the individual, the family, and society itself. Significantly, this peculiar and often puzzling novel appeared following the Watergate scandal that forced President Richard Nixon to resign from office. This scandal exposed society to the existence of a “hidden” political process, the influence of conspiracy, and the need to be vigilant in one’s relationship with power. To be sure, the period since the book’s publication has only amplified this concern. Cormier’s dedication to calling attention to troubling and complex issues of society and public policy makes this novel both demanding and urgent.
I Am the Cheese focuses almost entirely on the role of the individual caught in a web of circumstances beyond his or her control. To the young reader, who may often feel powerless and mistrustful, Cormier stresses the destructive effects of neutrality.
Apart from the grave issues it examines, the novel intensifies its demands on the reader by entering a psychological realm of complex characters where the reader must sort through a variety of possibilities in order to locate the truth. Although this may be unsettling at first, the reader soon discovers that this disorientation is very much part of Cormier’s theme. That is to say, coping with this sort of society is confusing, but courage and persistence can bring understanding.
Although the novel appeals to many readers as a mystery, I Am the Cheese is among the most challenging young adult works, requiring close reading and, in many cases, a second reading. Past and present blur and overlap, reality is indeterminate, and characters are often not what they seem. On the other hand, Cormier offers readers the chance to unravel the book’s riddles and to become deeply involved intellectually and emotionally in the struggles of an “average” adolescent trying to make sense of a new reality.