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the chocolate war

15 february 2012

Robert Cormier's Young Adult classic The Chocolate War is a grim and uncompromising book. It proposes that the world is populated by fools and knaves, with the latter predominating. In this chocolate world, the few good guys simply cannot win. In other words, it proposes things proposed long before by W.M. Thackeray, Edith Wharton, Evelyn Waugh, William Faulkner, and Somerset Maugham. The only reason it's such a notoriously banned/challenged book is that it's intended to be read by teenagers. Resistance to kids' reading The Chocolate War is an expression of our desire to prolong their innocence.

Rhetorically, The Chocolate War is an extended meditation on bullying, reflecting that the bullies always win. Teenage bullies defeat those who turn the other cheek; adult bullies are the worst bullies of all, using teenage bullies as catspaws and bullying them in turn. Schools are inherently playgrounds for sadists (Charles Dickens would have agreed). You can resist, and your resistance has existential value (Joseph Heller would have agreed, and for all I know did agree). But there is no place in the world of The Chocolate War that really values that resistance. The scandal of the novel is not so much that Jerry Renault loses the Big Boxing Match between good and evil at its end: you can lose and still walk away unbowed (Sylvester Stallone would agree). But if no-one thinks you're justified in defeat, then you really can't win for losing.

As lugubrious as it is, The Chocolate War is superbly written, with a tense plot and a novelists' novelist's command of narrative. Cormier chooses an omniscient perspective that has the maximum possible access to his characters' thoughts and emotions. With such a technique, the fatal temptation is to explain too much and get too rhetorical. But Cormier instead limits his insights to one character at a time, often a minor character seen only once, who exemplifies some part of the social whole that allows violence and oppression to thrive in his upwardly-mobile, anxious, middle-class Catholic school of the 1970s.

One doesn't enjoy books like The Chocolate War, but one can admire their control of language and narration. I almost said "realism," too, but while any given scene in The Chocolate War is potentially imaginable, the whole thing is too fraught and over-the-top to be plausible. Better to imagine the novel as a stylized, almost Boschian exercise in the macabre. Events like those in The Chocolate War don't happen, or at least not all at once. But by bringing them together between two closely-spaced covers, Cormier crystallized the disaffection of an entire generation of misled youth. The Chocolate War has scarcely dated 38 years on.

Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. 1974. New York: Ember [Random House], 2011.