Chip Kidd – “The Cheese Monkeys”

September 24, 2009

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Chip Kidd. Chip Kidd. Chip Kidd. It’s a curious name, there’s no denying that. I first came across it when he was credited as “designing” the luxurious, oversize editions of Alex Ross’ Mythology and Dave Gibbons’ Watching the Watchmen. It’s the kind of name you expect to be ascribed to a supporting character in Peanuts rather than to a real, living person.

But real and living he is. He’s not a household name but his work in book design is legendary. Remember the Jurassic Park logo? That was him.

However I was unaware that he was a published novelist, with two books to his name. I picked up his first, The Cheese Monkeys, on a whim. Drawn in by the fact that it was billed as a “novel in two semesters”, I thought it would resonate somewhat with my own experience of two semesters at an American university. I was please to find that it did, although not in the way I was expecting.

The novel concerns a young man starting college at a fictional institution at the tail-end of the 1950s, majoring in art. Nothing could be further from my own vaulting academic aspirations.

However, the novel perfectly encapsulates the moment in everyone’s life when they discover who they really are and what they are destined to become. Beyond the gaggles of primary school-yard friends and the closed cliques of secondary education, my wilderness year in America was a time of great self-realisation.

This is partly due to the inspiring quality of the instruction at American higher education institutions. University in the UK is, in my opinion, utterly worthless. Successive governments’ pledges to get as many people attending has driven the value of an undergraduate degree into the ground. Beyond this, so many loathsome people use university as a finishing school, with no thought given to anything beyond the cold, small streets that trap them.

However, in America, there is such breadth and diversity in higher education. The fact that you can major in English and take classes in Astronomy is utterly beguiling to me. It’s a system that caters to the truly curious and rewards the small, mewling child in us all that constantly begs, “Why?”

I’m straying from the point a little but this novel did very much reawaken within me the moments in my life when I have felt truly inspired and certain of myself. Oscar Wilde wrote that the meaning of life is the complete realisation of the self. That’s fine for a fop-faced aesthete to say, and the fact that he was married with two children suggests he didn’t entirely follow his own dogma, but it’s the closest to a workable definition I’ve yet found.

In short, read this book! It doesn’t have the most satisfactory of endings (I believe the story is picked up by Kidd’s second novel, The Learners) but it is wickedly funny and richly rewarding.

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