What if you learned something about yourself that was really terrible, completely contrary to what you believed of yourself; how would you react? That’s the dilemma facing Happy—yes, the name’s ironic—in Chip Kidd’s second novel The Learners. Actually, Happy gets two hard lessons about himself before this quick-witted little book comes to a close. Before that, he leans a whole bunch of good and practical things as well.
Kidd is the revolutionary graphic designer whose book covers are celebrated as the best thing since the dust jacket. (A collection of his covers and other graphic work, Chip Kidd: Book One: Work: 1986-2006 was published by Rizzoli in 2005.) The Learners displays his talent with a diagonally-cut, half-a-dust-jacket over which peers a sweating, be-speckled Charles Burns portrait (Burns is the imaginative graphic novelist behind the mutant teens comic The Black Hole). Peeling away the dust jacket reveals the face half-hidden behind a volt meter. More on that later. There are other hip touches: cartoonist Chris Ware did The Learners logo and the copyright page is split, requiring the reader to flip back and forth between pages to learn the typefaces used. Cute, yes; even a bit troublesome. But you can’t always judge a book by its cover.
The real innovation here is in the design of Kidd’s story, especially in relation to his first. We originally met Happy in The Cheese Monkeys (published in paperback this past January), a coming-to-college tale set in the late 1950s that follows Happy to “State U” where he majors in art. Happy is particularly influenced by a graphic design class taught by one Winter Sorbeck, the professor who bestows on him the Happy moniker. The Cheese Monkeys is structured on semesters and classes, the second semester broken into critiques suffered—and we do mean suffered—during Sorbeck’s “Introduction to Graphic Design,” formerly “Introduction To Commercial Art.” Yes, the distinction is important. The sections are divided by short discussion of form–left to right, top to bottom, big and small—so that you may more easily, uhumm, get the picture.
The Learners takes place in 1961 and is conveniently divided into “Before,” “During,” and “After” sections. “Before” and “After” what isn’t clear until one reads the “During” section. The sections are separated by a-word-from-our-sponsor, public-service-announcement styled breaks. This is a story about commercial art, remember? But content is as important here as form was to the first novel, and Kidd takes opportunity to discuss the importance of design to meaning, notably in a section on the variables of typography. What falls between these design elements is that great cliché—the “creative process”—and that’s what makes Kidd’s story fun. Before it gets serious.
Our Happy graduate falls into a job with Spear, Rakoff & Ware, an advertising agency in New Haven, Connecticut, which survives on newspaper coupons and the Krinkle Kut potato chip account. The agency once employed Professor Sorbeck who at the end of The Cheese Monkeys abandoned his class much to Happy’s chagrin. “If I couldn’t be where Winter was now,” he says, “I’d go where he’d been.” This opens Happy to a new round of characters: Tip, an eclectic concept man, Sketchy the frustrated cartoonist and Mimi, the widowed boss with a great dane known to take liberties. After a series of successes, Happy is asked along with the others to come up with one big idea to win a major shoe company account, a task which recalls the assignments inflicted by Sorbeck in the previous book.
Returning from Cheese Monkeys is Himillsy Dodd, the outspoken and outrageous object of Happy’s unrequited affection. The fun turns when Happy creates an ad calling for subjects for a psychology experiment at Yale. Proud of his creation and with a nudge from Himillsy, our anti-hero volunteers himself. The experiment, pulled from history, is Professor Stanley Milgram’s infamous “obedience” experiments that found that over 60 per cent of his volunteers gladly inflicted a 450 volt shock to a fellow participant as long as they were asked to, no matter how much the other participant, a confidant, begged them not to.
The fact that Happy is so willing to please makes him something shy of his name. That he was already burdened with Himillsy’s joke gone-too-far brings weight to what until then seemed like a screwball comedy of clever dialogue, something like Ben Hecht’sThe Front Page placed in an off-Madison Avenue ad agency. The story is propelled like paint from a can, its characters just as colorful. All the graphic touches, visible and literary, are added effect to the bold face print of moral quandary. You end up liking Happy even if he doesn’t like himself. In that, there’s an obvious lesson.
The Learners by Chip Kidd; Scribner, hardback, 260 pages, $26
A version of this review first appeared in the Inland Empire Weekly