Some writers defy categorisation. They cannot be filed, stamped, or absorbed. Yes, you may find their books in certain areas of the book shop or the library, but essentially these writers remain difficult to anticipate, their work always surprising and interesting. I’d place Francesca Lia Block, Cory Doctorow, Sam Pink, Kathy Acker, Jason Starr, Jeff Noon, Neil Gaiman, and Kurt Vonnegut into that category. Always different. Always surprising.
Robert Cormier is also one of those writers. His books have always been labelled ‘Juvenile’ or ‘Young Adult’ because they feature teen protagonists and are published under imprints that tend to exclusively feature books for that age range.
But Robert Cormier wrote some of the darkest, nastiest, and beautiful stories. Can something dark and nasty really be beautiful? His style of writing tended towards graceful and elegant even when the subject matter was horrific. Nothing was off-limits to Robert Cormier. In an interview with The Guardian, he famously said, “There are no taboos. Every topic is open, however shocking. It is the way that the topics are handled that’s important, and that applies whether it is a 15-year-old who is reading your book or someone who is 55.” That more than anything else probably sums up his genius.
The proof is in the work. Take The Chocolate War, for instance. It tells the story of a boy at a school ruled by a secret society, a school that engages in an annual chocolate sale. The funds from the sale go back into the school’s bank account, which has been embezzled by the head master. Corruption isn’t the story, it’s just a way of life for these characters. The story is Jerry Renault’s refusal to sell the chocolates. And his insubordination sparks a small revolution that – like all places ruled by tyrants – must be crushed. Without giving away the ending, it isn’t nice. But this taught a very young version of me that not every tale needed to have a happy ending.
Robert wouldn’t shy away from controversial topics. Fade, one of his best books, features a boy with the power to turn himself invisible. He sneaks into a girl’s bedroom to spy on her and witnesses his crush with her brother. Let’s just say the nature of their relationship is more familiar than familial.
Tenderness, a tale about a girl with a crush on a serial killer is brutal and beautiful. After The First Death takes on the topic of terrorism at high school. Tunes For Bears To Dance To is about bigotry and it comes complete with an utterly bleak conclusion, one of Cormier’s darkest conclusions to any of his books. In The Middle Of The Night, possibly Cormier’s weakest book, is slightly directionless, but the ending is skin-crawling in the most repulsive way imaginable.
His masterpiece, however, is Heroes. The story tells of a boy without a face who returns home from war to take revenge on someone. As with all of Cormier’s fiction, it can often be an uncomfortable experience – but the characters are always complex and interesting, the writing gripping from the first sentence to the final full stop. Alongside I Am The Cheese, it serves as his finest and most complete work.
Robert Cormier’s last book before he died is the underrated The Rag And Bone Shop. It’s about a boy being interrogated over the murder of a child. Because the mayor wants to be re-elected, he brings in the best interrogator in the state. This culminates in one of the most pessimistic endings ever featured in a Robert Cormier novel. Can you imagine how bleak that must be?
What I love about YA fiction, though I don’t really see it much anymore, is that YA could be anything. It could be everything. Modern YA as a genre is far too regulated, too many boxes to be ticked. Robert Cormier refused to give easy answers or provide happy endings. And I think that’s what makes him so essential and – yes, I’ll say it because I firmly believe it – significant in literature. His work was sophisticated yet he achieved this without once speaking down to his young readers. Robert Cormier isn’t as well-known as he used to be. In fact, he might even be unfashionable, but whenever I re-read his books I’m always reminded that real quality never goes out of fashion.