Thursday, 12:00am
2 May 2002

From covers to content

Chip Kidd's first novel may be the first novel about graphic design

By Rick Poynor

Written exclusively for eyemagazine.com

Do graphic designers read much fiction? Occasionally, I’ll ask a designer and once in a while the answer is a slightly aggrieved-sounding ‘Of course!’ Mostly, though, it’s not a priority and perhaps that’s why Chip Kidd’s first novel has received surprisingly little attention in the design press, though it’s been reviewed by ordinary publications. This is a pity because his story is actually about graphic design. There may be others out there, but I have never come across them.

I approached The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters (Scribner) with high expectations. Kidd says he doesn’t regard himself as a writer, but frankly I don’t believe him. For one thing he is steeped in the New York literary scene. His partner, J. D. McClatchy, is a poet and literary editor, and Kidd has created exceptional covers for countless leading writers, from James Ellroy to Oliver Sacks. Unlike many cover specialists, he says he actually reads all the books. His occasional reviews and articles display a sharp, effortlessly witty turn of phrase. Maybe he toils over his prose, but that’s not how it reads. He has that essential tool of any writer who wants to carry the reader along – a good ear.

The Cheese Monkeys is a coming-of-age tale set in an American university in the late 1950s. A naïve freshman called Happy plans to major in art, but stumbles into design. The period setting is a smart move because it allows Kidd to burrow back into the essence of design as communication, without worrying about the factions and debates of recent years. It also means his scarily confrontational design prof, Winter Sorbeck, can behave in a way that would get him kicked off campus faster today than occurs in the book. The second semester is structured as a series of teaching assignments and critiques that are more like flagellations. In the most memorable, Sorbeck buses his indignant class into the middle of nowhere on a freezing day and tells them that, using a Magic Marker and piece of card, they must each devise a sign that will persuade a driver to pick them up. The longer it takes to get a ride, the lower the grade, and there is no other way back.

Sorbeck is a compelling creation, equal parts monster and martyr, who demands that his reluctant students open their eyes to the world. Kidd’s dialogue is believable and the classroom discussions and humiliations are often gripping – it’s no mean achievement that non-designers seem fascinated by these scenes. In one assignment, Sorbeck orders Happy to find out who designed a Wrigley’s chewing gum wrapper: the revelation is genuinely affecting. I was less convinced by Himillsy Dodd, Sorbeck’s cynical classroom sparring partner, who lives with her architect boyfriend in a Bauhaus pad. She is a fantasy figure, her precocity and poise in all circumstances just a little too cute to ring true. Her final crack-up twists the book’s elegant surface into melodrama and, after the fluency and control of the earlier pages, it feels forced.

As you might expect, Kidd is his own designer here. A small text block surrounded by generous margins gives his pages a period feel. When Sorbeck arrives on the scene, the typography sharpens, changing mid-page from Apollo to Bodoni. The book’s two slogans, ‘Do you see?’ and ‘Good is dead’ (a Sorbeckism), are printed on the pages’ fore-edge, and the author’s thanks wind eccentrically around the cover binding. A dust jacket, with hand lettering by Chris Ware, can be slipped on and off as desired. Kidd has printed on the end papers so that the story appears to break off abruptly as the students are ejected into the world – an expensive touch. All this makes his debut a distinctive object and might add to its appeal for the visually minded, though it’s good enough not to need these extras.

And the eponymous ‘Cheese Monkeys’, rendered as a rebus on the cover? The book offers no explanation, but there is a hint when Happy tracks down the studio that produced the gum wrapper. If the man who used to run it years ago was the ‘big cheese’, then Sorbeck’s stunned students – designers in the making – are the monkeys.

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