What happens when your free will is no longer free? The novels we’ll look at in today’s post feature characters whose mental and physical conditions have taken away all or part of their free will. This is a serious problem for Cormier’s worldview, and one he spends considerable time examining, especially in the masterful Tenderness. But before we get to Tenderness, we have to deal with I Am the Cheese.
Hey, did you know that Adam is totally reliving the same day over and over again? Oops, should I have said “spoiler alert”? Seriously, though, the famous twist ending of I Am the Cheese reveals that 1) the plot in which Adam has been biking across New England to bring a package to his father has been going on almost entirely inside Adam’s head and 2) Adam has been institutionalized by Witness Protection for three years and has been reliving the events of the book every year as an interrogator tries to find more information about who killed Adam’s parents. It’s a very clever twist, but it has serious implications for how we respond to Adam as a character. What, exactly, is the point of Adam’s trek across “New England”? What, in fact, is the point of Adam’s existence at all? I think there are plenty of answers to that question, but I don’t find any in the text of the novel—partially because Cormier leaves the revelation of Adam’s existence until the very end of the novel. I love I Am the Cheese, but to be honest, the second and third times I read it, I became much less interested in the sections that I knew were going on in Adam’s head, and felt that the novel suffered from my knowledge of the ending. And frankly, I think the questions I just posed about Adam’s existence bothered Cormier too, because he returned to a similar scenario, with a more complete answer to these questions, in The Bumblebee Flies Anyway.
In The Bumblebee, we are again in a medical facility, and again we have a character, Barney Snow, with extreme memory loss, although in this case, his memory loss is intentional—he has agreed to participate in a series of psychological experiments on memory, in part because he wants to erase his knowledge that he has a terminal illness. But this time, we have full knowledge of the institutional setting from the beginning, and we learn of the extent of the memory experiments in a slow reveal throughout the novel. By eschewing the twist end of I Am the Cheese, Cormier gives himself room to contemplate the implications of Barney’s situation. His answer is in the title of the book. According to a (completely bogus) urban legend, the common bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly due to some (usually unstated) law of aerodynamics. The punchline is: and yet “the bumblebee flies anyway.” Regardless of its (non-existent) scientific provenance, it is a useful metaphor for fighting the impossible fight. And that is exactly what Barney does. One of his fellow terminal patients is determined to have a last joyride before he dies, and Barney concocts a quixotic* plan: they find a wooden car, with working wheels, in a nearby junkyard; they dismantle the car piece by piece, and then reassemble it inside their hospital; finally, Barney and his friend will ride the car off the roof in a blaze of glory. In the end, neither Barney nor his friend can go through with plummeting to their deaths, but they still send the car—dubbed “the Bumblebee”—flying off the roof. A third co-patient who helped them, Billy, asks them why they didn’t get in the car, to which Barney replies in his head: “Didn’t Billy understand? They didn’t need to fly. The Bumblebee would fly for them.” As the novel ends, Barney is finally succumbing to his illness, confined to his bed, barely conscious, and possibly still lacking important memories, but he has still triumphed:
In the bed he now occupied he was surrounded by a grayness, and out of the grayness came faces. The faces were always sad and unsmiling. He wanted to tell them: Hey, laugh, or at least smile a little, because the Bumblebee is still flying and we made it fly.
I Am the Cheese and The Bumblebee Flies Anyway have clear connections in plot and theme. Cormier came at a similar theme of restricted free will from a totally different angle in another matched pair of novels: Tenderness and We All Fall Down. In both of these novels, one of the main characters is clearly mentally ill—Cormier doesn’t diagnosis his characters, but the main villain in We All Fall Down seems to have some form of schizophrenia, or perhaps even multiple personalities; and one of the two protagonists of Tenderness has some form of psychopathy or sociopathy.
We All Fall Down engages in yet another of Cormier’s beloved twist endings. Throughout the novel we follow a character who calls himself The Avenger, who we are meant to believe is 11-years-old and out to avenge a random attack on a neighbor of his. What we find out at the end is that The Avenger—his real name is Mickey—is actually a middle-aged man. When he was 11 he murdered a bully in his neighborhood and ever since he has reverted, in some sense, to being 11 any time he has felt the need to be “The Avenger”, meaning to kill again. The psychology may or may not be realistic, but Cormier attempts to make a distinction between The Avenger and Mickey, and the climax has one of the protagonists set Mickey against The Avenger psychologically. The point, for our purposes, is that Cormier seems to want to absolve Mickey of The Avenger’s crimes, because The Avenger is a type of compulsion. Like I Am the Cheese, the twist comes too late in the novel to allow for a full examination of its implications. Moreover, Mickey is actually a side character in the book. And so, once again, Cormier returned to a similar set of circumstances to grapple with the issues at greater length.
Tenderness has two main plotlines, which eventually intersect, but it is primarily an examination of Eric Poole, a serial killer who seems utterly incapable of feeling guilt or remorse. His particular compulsion—parallel, in some ways to The Avenger’s—is to kill young women, and her describes his murders as imbuing him with a sense of “tenderness.” Meanwhile, Lori, a very damaged young woman who habitually uses sex to get what she wants—CDs, money, and a car ride are the three we see in the first several pages—develops a fixation on Eric, and sets out to meet him.
Through a strange but strangely plausible set of circumstances, they end up on a highly bizarre road-trip, and Lori is absolutely determined to believe that Eric is or can be “nice.” And seemingly through her sheer force of will, she begins to have an impact on him. Eric is convinced that he will have to kill Lori, not out of the “tenderness” he needs, but because she knows a critical fact that could return him to prison. But it is more difficult to kill her than it should be: “Now that he had condemned her, he felt a rush of tenderness towards her, not the kind he found with the other girls . . . but a different tenderness, wanting to be gentle with her.”
Even after he makes an attempt, Lori persists in her beliefs. She tells him (and it seems to be genuinely true), “You’re the only person who’s ever treated me with respect. And I trust you . . .”, provoking the following reverie from Eric:
As he watched her tongue licking jelly from her cheek, he wondered what it would be like to kiss the jelly off that cheek, to feel her body close to him, not like with the others, but stopping before the act was completed. Maybe there would be tenderness in all that. . . . He realized she knew all about him but she didn’t care.
Cormier does not go overboard with this—he makes it clear that Eric retains his compulsion to kill, but the friendship he develops with Lori, perhaps the first real friendship either has ever had, does provoke a genuine change in him, to the extent that he actually tries to save Lori’s life when she falls in a river (despite the fact that her death would be advantageous to him). Of course, we know how Cormier loves his twists, and the kicker is that he fails to save Lori, and the police use her death—believing he drowned her intentionally—to send Eric back to prison.
*See what I did there with the “fight the impossible fight”?