The Completist: Robert Cormier, Part Four

I swallowed the wafer, telling myself: Think of it as a wafer, no communion, no the Body of Christ.

Kneeling, I waited for thunder and lightning, for the walls of the church to crumble, the pillars to tumble against each other. But nothing happened.

That was the worst thing of all (Fade)

I’ve been talking a lot in these posts about sin and evil, and the consequences of evil on the people sinned against. Today, we’re going to look at a few books that focus on guilt: that is, the consequences of sin on the sinner himself. We saw some of this play out in of Tunes for Bears to Dance To and Heroes (from Part One of this series), but I’ll offer a few more examples.

8 + 1A story called “Mine on Tuesdays” from 8 + 1 shows the implications of a father’s guilt over leaving his wife and daughter. The story is set on a Tuesday, the father’s visitation day. Father and daughter go to an amusement park, where the father allows his daughter to ride on a particularly scary ride, despite his misgivings. He doesn’t accompany her because he is hungover. As his daughter becomes more and more scared on the ride, and then refuses to talk to him after the ride is over, he realizes that letting her go on the ride alone was a possibly irredeemably betrayal. He reflects on how his guilt made him give in to anything his daughter ever asked for: “All those why nots I had tossed her–not bouquets of love, but bribes.”

Another story of guilt, which I’ve mentioned in each of my last two posts, is We All Fall Down. In Part Two, I briefly mentioned the crucial betrayal: Buddy is a screwed up, but basically decent kid, who goes along with a gang—led by a boy named Henry—to do some random vandalism. When a girl who lives there unexpectedly comes home, Henry attacks her. He attempts to rape her before pushing her down a flight of stairs, leaving her in a coma. Technically speaking it seems implausible that Buddy could have done much in the moment, but both he and Cormier hold him accountable for guilt by association:

Thinking of that house, how he had stood there, doing nothing, while Harry raped a girl. A kid, for crying out loud. . . . Glancing at Harry now as he turned onto North Boulevard, he decided that Harry was Frankenstein, the doctor who created the monster.

Who is the monster then? Buddy wondered. Remembering his part in the vandalism and his inability to stop what they had done to the girl, he thought: Maybe it’s me. But I am not a monster. Or is that what all the monsters said?

Buddy attempts to make amends for his guilt by befriending the girl’s sister. They develop a relationship, which is brought to an abrupt end by her discovery of his complicity in the vandalism and assault.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Catholic of Cormier’s time (or even today), his characters frequently feel deeply guilty even when they have done little or nothing wrong. Sometimes, Cormier thinks this overactive guilt is a good thing, as in a pair of stories in 8 + 1.  In “Another of Mike’s Girls” the teenaged protagonist falls out of love with his girlfriend, and complains to his father that he feels “like a rat” for breaking up with her. His father responds, “You should feel like a rat . . . You can’t help what happens to your emotions, Mike. … It would be terrible to fake it with Jane or anybody else. If you didn’t feel bad about it, you’d really be a rat.”

In “My First Negro” the stakes are considerably higher, but the moral is about the same. In a story taking place in the 1930s, the narrator befriends a black boy from a very poor district of Monument. He becomes involved in a fairly harmless, or possibly even positive, prank—he and some friends steal fruit and vegetables from the garden of a rich resident, and actually intend to give them away in the black neighborhood. But they choose to disguise themselves by darkening their faces with cork, and when the prank goes sour, they end up inadvertently offending the black community. Like the denouements of Tunes for Bears to Dance To and Heroes the damage has been done to their relationship, but Cormier wants us to see the narrator’s guilt from this as a positive growth experience.

in the middle of the nightWhile perhaps not as unambiguously positive, In the Middle of the Night finds a similar sort of nobility in guilt. The novel is primarily focused on a teenaged boy named Denny, but his life is heavily impacted by the guilt his father, John Paul, feels for a long ago accident. John Paul was an usher at a movie theater. On a particularly busy night, he was sent by the manager up to the (closed off) balcony to check on a strange sound. While up on the balcony, it collapsed on the crowd below, killing 25 children. John Paul has been cleared of any wrongdoing by the police, but he feels intensely guilty, and the town blames him as well, harassing him with late night phone calls and more. The main plot revolves around Denny’s decision whether or not to try to clear his father’s name with a local reporter. In the end, he decides to honor his father’s wish to continue to answer “no comment” to questions about the incident. He is swayed in large part by this speech from John Paul:

Those people, twenty-five years ago, the ones the children left behind. Father and mother. The foster parents, sisters and brothers, what loss, what pain they felt. Time heals, like in the old saying. But for some, time does not heal. The pain stays, and it has to go someplace. It comes to me.

fade2The final novel to discuss here is Fade, where the narrator’s guilt is decidedly less benign. For some reason, it took me a long time to get to Fade, in Cormier’s work—possibly because it is his longest novel (although still only about 300 pages). All I can say is that it is a stunning piece of work—perhaps on par with the brilliance of The Chocolate War.

The novel is centered around narrator Paul Moreaux’s relationships with his uncle Adelard and his aunt Rosanna, neither of whom he has seen in many years prior to the opening of the novel. It is the relationship with Adelard that drives the plot—it is he who explains to Paul the secrets of the “fade”, the family ability to turn invisible. But it is Rosanna who drives the emotional core of the novel.

Looking at the plot through the trope of invisibility, the novel is a kind of dark fantasy thriller. Paul begins to use his “fading” to spy on various people throughout town, and finally at almost precisely the halfway point in the novel, uses it to murder the town’s quasi-mafia leader Rudolphe Toubert, who has been crucial in busting his father’s union. Following this murder, Paul resolves never to fade again, but also to track down the next recipient of the fade, who is always a nephew of the current fader. He eventually finds Ozzie, the illegitimate son of Paul’s sister Rose, who gave Ozzie up for adoption.  Ozzie has had to learn about the fade by himself, and he is a young man brimming with hatred.  At a young age, he murders his adoptive father, and plots to murder the nuns who take him in afterwards. When Paul reaches him, it is too late for Ozzie. Paul and Ozzie become locked in a death match, and Paul eventually kills Ozzie, in stunningly similar language to his murder of Toubert.

fadeThis thriller is fantastic, but Cormier adds another layer. At the exact moment Paul kills Toubert, the novel abruptly shifts, and we are told that what we have been reading is an unpublished manuscript by an author named Paul Roget. His niece and his literary agent are reading it and discussing whether Paul—now deceased—intended it to be a memoir or a novel, and the reader is strongly encouraged to begin to doubt the accuracy of first half of the novel, though Cormier gives us ample evidence for both positions.

This metafictional device makes available a completely different reading of the novel, one which is focused on Paul Roget’s attempts to come to grips with his guilt over his relationship with his aunt Rosanna.  Paul is sexually obsessed with Rosanna, masturbating to his fantasies of her, and confessing his love to her. His confession of his love, in the form of poem to her, precedes a scene of excruciating, embarrassing power that is impossible for me to summarize:

“It’s beautiful,” she said, her voice gentle as she held the poem in her hands, her eyes liquid blue as always but the liquid now resembling tears.

My own eyes were fastened on her breasts—it was beyond my power to look elsewhere—and for a glorious moment I feasted on them while I squirmed before her, face flushed, juices thick in my mouth. Then I felt the surge of ecstasy developing and struggled, bringing my knees together, stricken, as she looked at me, the poem still in her hand, her expression soft and tender. I bent forward, trying to make myself small and, at the same time, to hold back that quick beautiful spurt but unable to do so. As our eyes met, my body quivered with delight. I had never known such piercing happiness, such an explosive moment of sweetness. I trembled, shivered, as if strong winds were assailing me. And then, as always, came the swift shame and flush of guilt but this time worse than ever before because it had happened while she watched and I had seen her eyes grow puzzled and then alarmed and the—what? I could not read her expression—surprise, disgust?—I saw her mouth shape itself into an oval and heard her voice.

“Oh, Paul.”

Could she see the stains on my trousers?

“Oh, Paul,” she said again. Such a sadness in her voice but beyond sadness. Accusation, maybe, or betrayal.

After this amazing scene, and even before Paul learns how to “fade”, he begins following Rosanna, and learns her secrets—she had a brief relationship with Rudolphe Toubert in her teens and became pregnant. She went to Canada to have the baby and give it up for adoption, but the baby died at birth. It is her shame over her pregnancy that kept her away from Paul’s family so long, and she is back in Monument primarily to ask Toubert for money to open a small business.

frenchtown summerWith this knowledge, and with the knowledge that the fade may be a fictional device, Paul’s account of Toubert’s murder takes on new significance. Perhaps Paul had nothing to do with Toubert’s murder, but is acting out in fiction his jealous hatred toward the man who impregnated his beloved aunt. Of possible relevance here is a poem Cormier wrote in his collection Frenchtown Summer. In the poem, the narrator, in an angry fit tells a kid to die:

Three days later,
Hector Henault was crushed
like my goggles
under the wheels of a Mack truck
on Mechanic Street
near Fifth.
They said he died instantly.
I was awestruck
by my power to kill.

Perhaps what is going on in Fade is a portrayal of a similar kind of guilt—Paul wished for Toubert to die, and then he was murdered. In his fictional reworking, he then places the blame for Toubert’s death on himself.

Another piece of evidence that the plot of Fade is primarily a fictional reworking of Paul’s sexual guilt is in the spying Paul does while fading. Apart from the murder of Toubert, there are two main set pieces of Paul fading, both involving illicit sex. In the first, Paul observes a girl with whom he is infatuated prostituting herself to a much older shop keeper in town. In the second, after befriended a classmate and his twin sister, he breaks into their house to spy on them, and comes across them kissing. Incredibly, rather than leaving in surprise, he stays invisible, and watches and listens as they have sex.

Cormier—or rather Roget—could have had Paul spy on any number of things while invisible, so it is telling that the primary thing he observes is sex.  Moreover, it is difficult not to parallel these two encounters with Paul’s obsession with Rosanna—the first involves a large age difference, and the second an incestuous pairing: together these represent the two hurdles towards a real, rather than fantasy, relationship with Rosanna.

The second half of the novel does not fit quite so neatly into this pattern, but there are certain evocative passages. Most telling is the similarities between Rosanna’s and Rose’s illegitimate pregnancies (even down to their names), so that Paul’s search for his nephew becomes another attempt to connect with his aunt. Beyond that, though it is not driven by sexual angst, this entire section is again centered on Paul’s guilt: Paul’s search for Ozzie and attempt to help him use the fade responsibly are a direct reaction to his guilt over the murder of Toubert, and his attempt to ensure that it does not happen again. The tragedy of the novel is that he can only stop Ozzie by reenacting his own worst sin.

I think I have exhausted the theme of guilt in Fade, but there is much, much more to this novel—especially the second half, in which Ozzie’s fade seems to bring on a kind of schizophrenia. Suffice to say that anyone interested in Cormier should most certainly put a high priority on reading this one.

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