Book Review: Chip Kidd ‘Monkeys' Around, Aesthetically

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Chip Kidd

The Cheese monkeys

[Harperperennial Library]

Coming of age novels are the World War II movies of American literature-often overwrought, seldom original, and lately too grisly for their own good.

Thankfully, Chip Kidd's "The Cheese Monkeys" and its tour of 1950s college life is more Bauhaus than Buchenwald, tackling the big questions while leaving maudlin teenage angst to the dustbin of history.

Chronicling the freshman experiences of an unnamed, undersexed art major, the book may seem at times to be little more than a treatise on the principles of commercial art.

But this impression can be misleading. Underneath, this "novel in two semesters" is a quirky yet compelling story about a young man confronting his inhibitions, aesthetic and otherwise.

Though a plot about midcentury graphic design students finding themselves may seem suspiciously familiar to some readers, the book manages to survive by mixing two parts Kavalier for every one part Clay.

The protege of his willful classmate Himillsy Dodd, Kidd's protagonist splits his time fairly evenly between art class and a bohemian bar known as the Rathskeller.

Dodd's frenetic influence eventually rubs off, making the concluding sequence of the novel into a climactic tryst of violent frat parties and weird, homoerotic encounters.

Like a confused cynic attending a wonderfully wacky wizard's school, the narrator's character draws heavily upon both Holden Caulfield and Harry Potter, ending up less compelling than either.

Still, the the novel is so quickly paced and the dialogue so repleat with humorous quips that the story seems to have been airbrushed across the pages by a designer's deft hand.

In an anachronistic moment, the characters praise the aesthetic impact of Roy Lichtenstein's comic-inspired version of abstract expressionism.

This is troubling, if one notes that Lichtenstein first exhibited these types of paintings in 1962-a full five years after the events of the novel.

Design instructor Winter Sorbeck puts his students through what amounts to graphic design bootcamp; his class is often more about personal attacks than artistic critique.

At one point, to illustrate the importance of brevity in design, Sorbeck drives his small group of students out to a deserted road in the middle of winter.

The hapless students are then instructed to make concise signs explaining to passing drivers why they should be picked up and taken home.

Among the more successful efforts were "I AM NOT ARMED" and "ASK ME WHY I'M HERE."

Throughout the book, Kidd sidesteps the old design argument about style versus substance, implying instead that the two are one and the same.

Even the simianesque title itself is derived from a piece of art in the novel that is merely an unoccupied plaster column, seemingly meant to hold another artistic work that has somehow gone missing.

In its absence, the pillar itself is made to substitute as an artistic exhibit.

Kidd, for whom this is a first attempt at a novel, was previously a preeminent designer of book covers.

After years of expertly building the plaster pillars meant to hold the work of others, he has now set out to create art of his own.

The result, however, is still just an empty plaster pillar, but one that now bears the label 'art' and is on display for all to see.


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