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Chip Kidd: The Cheese Monkeys

This was a weird one. Chip Kidd is a superb book designer; he might be a little overexposed by now, but there was a time when whenever I picked up a book and thought the design was awesome, half the time it was by him.

So this is his first novel, and it is, unsurprisingly, largely about graphic design. The protagonist is a college student who starts out thinking he’ll be an artist and then discovers the world of design. Although from page to page I enjoyed the novel a lot, when you step back and look at it from a distance it is sort of three books in succession, and the transitions were a bit jarring for me.

First comes your standard well-told comic tale of college life, stuffed to the gills with wry observations and dry wise-cracks. It comes off as a little glib, but Kidd does know how to write and it is genuinely entertaining.

Then it turns into a manifesto of design principles. A teacher shows up who is passionate about graphic design, and a lot of the middle of the book is devoted to him hectoring the class about various postulates and theorems. This was actually interesting too, but I couldn’t help thinking that it was all mostly here because Kidd himself is passionate about these ideas, wanted to pass on his excitement, and thought that the best way to do so was to stick them in a novel. It felt a little more like a novel from a hundred years ago in that respect.

Then, just when you are finally comfortable with the novel basically being a hip textbook in a thin fictional wrapper, the drama goes way up; it turns out that most of the characters are not just sort of messed up, but actually really messed up, everything sort of explodes, and you are left wondering where it all came from.

Now, clearly Kidd understood that he was making a book with an odd structure, and had his reasons, but I’m not honestly sure what those reasons were, and the book as a whole felt kind of weird to me. Again, any individual page was quite entertaining, and I learned a lot of interesting things about graphic design, and I certainly enjoyed the book. But somehow, once I put it down at the end, it felt like a little less than the sum of its parts. That said, I am still interested in the recent sequel, in which the protagonist apparently finds himself in the real world. Maybe that will feel a little more grounded.