Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Learners by Chip Kidd

This is a sequel to The Cheese Monkeys, which was widely seen as a thinly-veiled autobiography, even though it was set a decade or so too early to be Chip Kidd's real life. As The Learners starts, "Happy" -- he never gets a real name in this short novel -- has graduated from "State," and in 1961 gets a job at a small advertising firm in New Haven, entirely because his beloved art teacher from The Cheese Monkeys also had his first job there.

Happy gets depressed after meeting Himillsy Dodd, a girl he knew in college -- I'll leave out the details of exactly why he gets depressed, since that would give away too much of the plot. Complicating this section is the fact that I can't tell if Happy is meant to be straight or not; he doesn't have any obvious interest in women or men over the course of the novel, and his relationship with Himillsy might be sublimated lust...but it doesn't have to be. (I suspect that Kidd just doesn't have much of an idea what a young straight guy thinks about women -- or maybe that Happy is so deeply in the closet that he hasn't figured out for himself that he's gay yet. There is at least one moment that argues for the latter, but Happy's relationship with Himillsy tends the other way.)

The small ad agency -- Spear, Rakoff & Ware -- should also be mildly depressing, though Happy doesn't take it that way at first. The "how a graphic designer works" aspect of the book ebbs and flows, though it's never as dominant as it was in Cheese Monkeys. The agency is small, populated entirely by eccentrics (and not humorous ones), and its outlook for continued existence is somewhat gloomy. But Happy's boss, Milburne "Sketchy" Spear, is a master draftsman, and that's enough for Hap for quite a while. But his Himillsy problem starts him down the path to clinical depression.

And then he signs up for an experiment in memory at nearby Yale University -- which turns out to be Stanley Milgram's famous experiment in obedience. Happy ends up like most of the people who took part in that experiment: he "kills" the learner with fake electric shocks. But he takes it terribly badly -- over-the-top badly, I'd say; since he reacts as if he actually did kill someone, and has a sin that can never be expunged -- and so the rest of the novel is the record of Happy completely falling apart.

The details of art direction and typography that were central in The Cheese Monkeys are still there, but they fit very uneasily with Happy's psychological anguish in the second half of the novel. And the ending struggles for pathos, but ends in grotesquerie. The Learners is much less successful than The Cheese Monkeys, and isn't sure of what it wants to be: is it the continuing story of an graphic designer's education, or the story of a young man devastated to learn that he's capable of murder? (And, if the latter, this is a very thin way of learning that -- many young men find out they're capable of killing another man by doing it, either in war or elsewhere.) Chip Kidd may have been the proverbial guy who had one novel in him: The Cheese Monkeys was quite good, while The Learners is much less so.

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