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'I Am The Cheese': A Nightmarish Nail-Biter

Ben Marcus is the author of The Flame Alphabet.

I Am the Cheese opens with Adam Farmer riding his bike. He carries a package for his father and needs to get it to him fast. So far, it's a perfectly harmless adventure story.

But something is strange about this bike trip. First of all, Adam's father is far away. To get to him, Adam must ride from Massachusetts to Vermont, on a kid's bike with a single speed. Can you even do that? He's just begun, and he's already exhausted. The troubling questions come flooding in. Why is Adam alone? What's going to happen when it gets dark?

I Am the Cheese made me worry. I was 12, and until then, books were to be trusted, and their stories — the plots and characters — were exactly as they seemed. Had I heard of unreliable narrators? I had not. Did it occur to me that someone roughly my age could be separated from his parents, forced to make an impossible journey back to them? It did not. So I read it and I worried, and I couldn't put it down. I Am the Cheese became a nail-biter about my own survival. Somehow, within just a few pages, the author Robert Cormier had transformed me into Adam Farmer. I was on that bike, pedaling furiously, and I had better get back to my parents before the night turned cold.

I read this book on a perfect Saturday, a day of legendary sunshine. After tearing through the first few chapters, I announced to my parents that I'd be returning to bed to read this thing through to the end. They nodded their approval, perhaps wondering what sort of book would lead their young son to forsake a day of baseball.

Page by page the book gets scarier. Each chapter of Adam's bicycle adventure is sandwiched by an interview transcript in which he is questioned by a creepy doctor about mysterious people from his past. Adam tries to remember but can't. The interrogations are relentless, administered from some chilling government organization that seems to think Adam has a secret, if his name is even Adam.

Ben Marcus is the author of <em>Notable American Women</em>, <em>The Father Costume</em> and <em>The Age of Wire and String</em>.
Michael Lionstar /
Ben Marcus is the author of Notable American Women, The Father Costume and The Age of Wire and String.

What? At this point, my mind was officially blown. Who were those people who visited his home, the doctor asks Adam? Who was the "gray man" who would only speak to Adam's father down in his cellar? And what were Adam's parents always whispering about when they thought Adam was asleep?

Meanwhile, Adam's bike trip grows more difficult, but he presses on. A dog threatens his progress. His bike is stolen, and he must fight someone to get it back. The landscape bends and shimmers around him, as it would in a nightmare. Is this really New England? Why does it seem like Adam is stuck in a hamster wheel, pedaling for nothing, going nowhere? How on earth will he get back to his father?

I don't want to spoil this book because I'm hoping you can do as I did: sacrifice a day in the sunshine and read it through to the end. Trust me that the story grows only more urgent, taking on a terrifying logic, and when you find out where Adam has really been riding his bike, you'll feel unzipped and undone and so blown away you'll never read the same way again.

I Am the Cheese is ultimately the story of a boy who has lived through such troubling times that his mind, to save him from the truth, creates a new, safer world for him to inhabit. Adam Farmer was my first unreliable narrator. A narrator who is not a liar or deliberately deceitful even in the slightest. And yet he has fully broken with reality. Could this really happen? I emerged from my room and regarded my parents with new suspicion. Just what exactly was going on here?

PG-13 is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ben Marcus