Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lessons from the Kidd

                Chip Kidd.
        258 pp. Published 2008.

There is a saying that goes: “don’t judge a book by the cover.”  For many books, this is true, but Chip Kidd’s latest novel, The Learners, is an exception to the rule.  Kidd, a graphic artist by trade, has put his own unique style into every aspect of his second novel, especially the cover.  Eyes wide with fright stare back at you from above a cover jacket that is the same color as blood from a B-list horror film.  The sweat-dotted brow and haunted eyes are enough to make you wonder what terrors reside within the pages. 
            In a sequel to Kidd’s first novel, The Cheese Monkeys, Happy has now graduated college and is eager to make his mark on the world of graphic design.  He begins working at an advertising agency in New Haven, Connecticut, the same place his favorite professor, Winter, got his start.  Spear, Rakoff, and Ware is an eccentric mom-and-pop shop whose “mom” is the queen bee of eccentricity.  Mimi Rakoff is more in love with her dog, a giant Mastiff named Hamlet whose cranium was “covered with dozens of Mimi’s lipstick stains,” than her late husband who was one of the agency’s owners.  Mimi is joined by a small staff which includes artist Milburne “Sketchy” Spears – a man who was a “most astonishing contradiction of components”; copywriter Tip Skikne, who is sardonic and loves word association games; and Preston Ware, who cofounded the agency and has been nothing more than a source of body heat for the past few decades.
Seeing life through rose colored glasses, Happy views his existence as a “life-long assignment that must be constantly analyzed, clarified, figured out, and responded to appropriately.”  Little does he realize what life has in store for him.  Kidd presents Happy with the ultimate assignment, and it is up to the young graduate to figure out if he will pass or fail. 
            In 1961, Professor Stanley Milgram at Yale University held a series of “obedience experiments.”  Using “teachers” and “learners,” Milgram attempted to prove that people will go so far as to inflict physical harm on another person all in the name of obedience.  It is into this experiment that Kidd throws Happy. 
            After designing the ad for the experiment, Happy is prompted to join the experiment by Himillsy, an old girlfriend he never truly got over despite her obvious need to control every situation.  He wants to see why Himillsy finds brains so fascinating: “Brains are just amazing.  I’m crazy for them.”  And so Happy enters into Professor Milgram’s experiment.  But he does not know what he is getting into.  As a “teacher” in the experiment, Happy must administer a memory test to the “learner,” and if the “learner” gets a question wrong, he must give them an electric shock.  What Happy does not know, though, is that he is the one being studied and that the “learner” is a scientist involved in the experiment.  The purpose?  To see if Happy will continue to administer the electric shocks despite the knowledge – or rather belief – that his learner is being physically harmed.    
Kidd deals well with the conflict between Form and Content: “The form of your experiment – the memory test.  It completely camouflages the content.”  Creating cover art is no problem for Kidd, but designing an emotional landscape that does not bore the reader with its repetitive and cliché lines is where Kidd falls short.   As Happy deals with the ramifications of the experiment, his emotions tend to mirror those of an emo teenager’s diary: “The world, the whole world needed to sit here in this tiny room with the two-way mirrors and get a good, raw look at itself.”  What started out as a soul-searching experience has become a social rant: “Humanity deserved to see itself explained….When it received orders from On High it would automatically proceed to savage and slaughter human beings it had no connection to, not even for a cause it believed in, but because that’s what was on the official instruction sheet.”
Despite its tendency to go into random diatribes about the evils of society and the flatness of its cast of characters, The Learners is a shining example of Kidd’s ability to show precise detail.  It is in the visuals, the comedy of everyday office interactions, and the observations of life that Kidd shows his talent.  It is the Form of The Learners that first catches the reader, and it is the Content that keeps them turning the pages.

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