I’m almost unsure of what to write about The Chocolate War at this point, partly because I feel like it really surprised my expectations–but not in a particularly good or bad way. I’m not sure what I was expecting from this book, but I guess it wasn’t this. And yet…
The story–and Cormier’s approach–has a lot going for it. For one, there’s the fact that this anti-hero/non-conformist story is set in the mid-to-late 60s, which provides a nice background and context for the main action at Trinity school. There’s a sort of anxiety about the book–for instance, characters talk about ‘The Bomb’ being dropped a lot–without really overdoing the set piece. Jerry has one important interaction with an aggressive hippie who calls him ‘square boy,’ and this makes an impact on him, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story, which could just as easily be set in contemporary times. But I imagine that if one read this book while learning about Vietnam or the Civil Rights Movement in history class, it would carry a good deal of punch to it.
I mentioned Cormier’s approach before, and I mean this in a few ways. Firstly, there’s the fact that he uses multiple narrators. This does a few things. It provides a nice insight to the many character’s psychology and motivation, while at the same time not privileging anyone’s viewpoint. Now that’s not to say that Archie, for instance, doesn’t come off like a really demonic sort of manipulator, but all the same, he’s humanized in a way that was really refreshing. We’re shown his vulnerabilities and fears and misgivings the same as we’re shown Jerrry’s or The Goober’s. And in this way, we’re forced to consider the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of his actions, as much his the actions themselves. He’s still a ‘bad guy,’ but he’s humanized.
The other thing about this book is that Cormier actually doesn’t really establish a final statement in the novel. He opens a door with the T.S. Elliot “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?” quote and the whole ‘do your own thing’ motto pursued by Jerry, but his perspective on whether going against the grain is actually worth it is never really solidified. It’s obvious that he believes that society will destroy individualists and resort to mob mentality when confronted with someone who defies pack logic–and it even seems at the end that Jerry himself has come to believe that all of his ideals were for naught. (“He had to tell Goober to play ball…to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do…They tell you to do your own thing, but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your own thing unless it happens to be their thing, too.”)
But all the same, it didn’t feel entirely clear to me whether Cormier was viewing this as a sort of noble sacrifice. They type of small gestures that bring about great change, even at the expense of the individual. There’s the threat at the end of the book that Archie will ‘get his’–that he’ll draw a white marble next time and have to enact his own assignment, that “another kid like Renault will come along” and challenge the powers that be again.
Not that this helps Jerry any, of course.