Saturday, August 16, 2008

Book 12 – The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters

By Chip Kidd

Note to reader: I’m going to use the word “clever” a lot for this review.

In case you didn’t know, Kidd made his mark as a graphic designer and his work has graced the covers of some fairly distinguished works of fiction. In 2001, he got his first book published -- as a writer. So not surprisingly, this particular trade paperback has:

1) his hands all over it (although the cover design is by “TK” – aka The Kidd perhaps?)

2) every single aspect of its design artfully and cleverly done.

I’m not just talking the front cover either. Oh no. Before you even start reading the damn thing, you’re looking at all the subversive little details in almost every structural piece of the book: the front and rear cover are the obvious places, then there’s a blurbs page, a spliced up copyright page and title page. Heck, even the inside front cover and the frickin’ fore edge (I had to look up which part of the damn book this was called in the Wikipedia, fcol) featured a clever little statement. I think the only thing left untouched was the ISBN barcode.

Ok then, the superficial stuff is now out of the way, we can finally get to the actual meat of the book. Well, first off, the content is cleverly structured. After all, the novel is subtitled A Novel in Two Semesters, so that is how the chapters are organized, and thus, how our clever little story unfolds.

Ok, already, so what is this book all about? Does it even have a story? Well let’s see. The story starts off about a college freshman student in 1957. Being somewhat late registering for art classes, he inadvertently ends up in a graphic design class taught by a young, charismatic pipe-smoking prof named Winter Sorbeck. Sorbeck is unorthodox, fascistically hardball, and likes to call his students ‘kiddies’, but damn, the guy is really passionate about design. If you’re listening, he’ll drop smart little graphic design tips, such as:

Always remember: Limits are possibilities. That sounds like Orwell, I know. It’s not – it’s Patton. Formal restrictions, contrary to what you might think, free you up by allowing you to concentrate on purer ideas.


Today we’re going to talk about Left to Right. We are the Western world. We read, see, think. Left. To. Right. We can’t help it. You have a few givens in this life, in this class. That is one of them. Use it.

Our protagonist also befriends who could be the most annoyingly cool girl on campus, Himillsy Dodd. Hims has very precociously leftfield opinions about institutional art. She hates Magritte (he ruined it for everybody – he gives everyone with an accelerated imagination a bad name!) and Picasso (a walking castration anxiety). More importantly, she is the best person to be with when running into the Campus Crusaders because her voice has just the right note of archness when slinging a witty retort to “Jesus loves you”.

The protagonist, known only by Sorbeck’s nickname, which is, ahem, Happy, soon becomes infatuated with both characters. Looking at photos of Kidd on the web, wearing a smart suit jacket and sporting either tortoise-shell or wire-rimmed glasses, or posing in wife-beater and cigarette for a black & white Kerouac-style portrait, I somehow get the feeling that The Cheese Monkeys is his ultimate liberal arts college fantasy.

That’s ok. Cuz I kinda enjoyed being in Kidd’s happy little vision of 1950’s collegiate life. It allows Kidd to insinuate clever remarks via his Happy channel. Like what would Happy’s internal thoughts be if he were to end up at a boring dinner party of uber-urbane architectural graduate students, which he does:

The guests started to arrive, and after thirty minutes I could have sworn I was in the first draft of an Ayn Rand novel. That this little pocket of proto-aesthetes really existed in State’s Disneyland of academic banality was more than I could have expected, let alone hoped to get a load of.

It’s ultimately a fluffy and very clever-funny read full of clever writing, but there are some real moments too, like learning cool things about design, and the awesomeness of finding a cool friend who inspires you to look at life differently, and how fun it is to be a student learning about something that really excites you and being challenged. The story may not be completely memorable, but little gems like this below (which totally reminds me of my film school days and of a certain French Fold) make up the sum of its parts:

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when The Difference began, but as I bought my ticket from the Beaver Bus Travel Company to go home for Easter, I was really, really bothered by the fact that the color and shape of the logo on it… did not match those on the sign above the sales booth… And that’s when I realized things like this had been occurring to me a lot lately. All signage – indeed, any typesetting, color schemes, and printed materials my eyes pounced on were automatically dissected and held to Draconian standards of graphic worthiness. It was all I could do to keep from grabbing the station attendant by the shoulders and shaking her into sense, screaming, “None of it’s CONSISTENT! Don’t you understand?! Somebody DO SOMETHING!!”


dsgran said...

ooooh. graphic design wisdom in a funky postmodern novel. i'm picking this up over winter break no doubt!

Buzby said...

A clever review of a clever novel, I like it!

Crumbolst said...

I was going to make a "clever" comment but Buz beat me to it. Like the review though.