The Cheese Monkeys, Chip Kidd

Scribner, 2001, 275 pages, C$38.00 hc, ISBN 0-7432-1492-7

Yes, I will confess: I’m just a sucker for design. Despite having no discernible talent for it (hey, just look at this web site), I’m quite willing to spend hours reading about graphic design, going “ooh” when I see good examples. Now, design freaks do learn to remember some names, and one of those names is Chip Kidd. He designs book covers, and with over eight hundred titles to his credit, it’s likely that you have seen his work at some point. In fact, it’s a virtual certainty given how his design for the first hardcover edition of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park became the basis for the movie’s logo. Hey, when Spielberg himself likes your stuff, how can you say no?

But Kidd leaped from designing books to writing books with The Cheese Monkeys, his 2001 novel about life in a graphic design course during the 1950s. Tone: Humorous. Autobiographical content: Presumably high. Overall impact: Mixed.

Narrated by some nameless student, The Cheese Monkeys is that old standby of literature, the coming-of-age story, mixed with an influential-teacher plot and wacky-college-hijinks vignettes. The interesting twist is that our narrator is about to get a crash-course in graphic design that’s halfway between boot camp and a sadistic psychological experiment.

The Cheese Monkey changes dramatically the moment it introduces the character of Winter Sorbeck, enfant terrible and teacher extraordinaire. And I don’t say this in the usual hyperbolic sense: In one of the book’s clever design touches, the font of the text changes as soon as he comes on-stage. For our featureless narrator, Sorbeck is a revelation, a prickly mentor and maybe even something more. Through Sorbeck, we ignorant readers will learn more than a bit about graphic design, or as the novel puts it, art that makes you do something. It’s quite revealing, and even more so for all the design freaks in the audience.

Naturally, you can’t be as accomplished a designer as Chip Kidd and not take the opportunity of a first novel to play tricks with book design. And so that’s how The Cheese Monkeys enjoys dozens of little touches, from the nonstandard book jacket to slogans embedded in the edges of the page to unusually-placed acknowledgements to content crammed in the book’s endpapers. The dust jacket wryly proclaims “Design by Some Guy” while the opening scrawl states “Copyright (C) 2001 by Charles Kidd. Yes. Charles.” Fun stuff, quite enough to make this a good buy for collectors.

From a strict literary perspective, it’s not a bad book. The writing is generally clean, crisp and amusing. The narrator is purposefully left blank, but one can’t say the same of the other characters in the novel. (Perhaps too much, in fact: It’s difficult to figure why the book is supposedly in the 1950s when some of the characters and events seem so contemporary.) While the book takes a long time to heat up -obviously leading up to Sorbeck’s introduction-, the last half is crammed with memorable scenes as the sadistic teacher tries to whittle down his class.

Unfortunately, Kidd reaches too far into surrealism for his last scene, and the book doesn’t grind to a halt as much as it collides with the back cover. What does it mean? What has happened to some of the characters, and what’s next for them? This is one of those annoying books which lets you decide. Some call this sophistication; I call it a lack of confidence. (Yes, I “get” the meaning of the last page. But really, wasn’t there a better way to do it?)

But this frustrating caveat aside, there’s plenty to like here, and not just for design geeks: There’s a number of truly hilarious scenes, starting with the “Colonel Percy” dousing scene. The reflexions on graphic design are brought forth with conviction, with an impact that won’t be wasted on anyone who has even thought seriously about this stuff. It’s an interesting book, a short book, and now that it’s generously available in remainder stacks, what are you waiting for?

June 2005: A frustrated reader wrote in to ask, in part,

Hey – so you “get” the last page of “The Cheese Monkeys”? I sure don’t and I’m cranky about it. Been puzzling for two days. Clues? Hints? Blatant explanations for the retarded?

Here’s what I sent back… (WARNING! EXTREME SPOILERS!)

As far as understanding the ending of Chip Kidd’s The Cheese Monkeys, I find myself in the awkward position of re-reading my review and thinking “What the heck did I mean back then?” Was I over-optimistic or deluded?

Re-reading the last few pages brought back a few memories, but nothing definite. The key, of course, is that I believe that the ending doesn’t make sense in a conventional way. Elements of it are superficially suggestive of a wrapping-up of loose threads, but my belief is that Kidd found himself unable or unwilling to deliver a true conclusion and so jumped the rails to give something that, if you squint real hard, can actually look like a conclusion. (I read over 200 books per year, and that type of stuff is more common that you’d think.)

The presence of the fish actually brings back to mind a bad joke…

Q: How many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: Fish.

…hey, I said it was bad. But if this was a term paper, I’d actually use it to try to make the point that the ending isn’t meant to be conventionally fatisfying.

This being said, a number of small expanations suggested themselves to me while browsing through the ending once more. Maybe one of those is what I had in mind when I wrote the review two years ago:

1. The meaning of the last page (“…I want you to design a moment in time…” “…you will take something you have made and use it to claim a moment for yourself -yours and truly yours- in front of the class…”) is that it explains (pick one) the entire book, the last section or the last chapter (called “The Final Exam”). In this explanation, the last page suggests that the last chapter is not part of the narrative, but represents kind of a grandstanding attempt by Kidd to re-use elements of his narrative (“something you have made”) and make an impression on (“claim a moment for yourself”, or maybe just “piss off”) the reading audience (“the class”). If I was trying to deconstruct the novel in a post-modernist interpetation, I believe that this theory could be made to work.

2. The “Fear and Loathing in Design Class” rests on the theory that “…we were somewhere around Bauhaus when the drugs began to take hold…” and that the narrator’s barriers of sanity start to erode roughly a hundred pages before the end and that by the end of the book, he’s blasted out of his mind by the pressure and exhaustion and what he perceived is half-informed by reality, half-shaped by wide-awake nightmares. In here, the last chapter is the kind of nightmare you’d make while drowsing fifteen minutes before the last exam, and the last page a reminder that it’s not over yet. If you want to be twisted, re-read the la
st page as if it was narrated by Keanu Reeves at the end of the first MATRIX movie (“…I’m not here to tell you how it ends, but to tell you how it begins…”) and then play Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up”.

3. …and so we come to the allegorical interpretation, probably the one intended by Kidd, but my least favourite one given that it has an effect undistinguishable from saying “I give up! It’s too complicated!”: Himillsy as a feminist symbol (a fish in a bowl, unable to get out), fading away (as per the graying-out of her dialogue) as the novel ends and the narrator conveniently graduates and allows her memory to disappear. (But not being unaffected by the experience: the font never changes back to Apollo typeface)

4. Then there’s the “Sixth Fish” theory that Himillsy was always a fish and that only the narrator saw her as a real person. (I’M KIDDING!)

Well, that’s already far too much thinking about a book that’s probably intended as being a zen-like unanswerable object of contemplation. (Internal evidence of this: The hardcover edition dust jacket’s blurb: “Oh, wouldn’t you meatbags like to know”)

Hopefully, you’ll be able to pick a half-satisfying theory from the ones above and let go of the novel. Please! Let it go! Read another one!

2 thoughts on “The Cheese Monkeys, Chip Kidd”

  1. I have listened to this book a dozen times and I enjoy the ending. Good for Himillsy and her departure, but please what does cheese monkey mean,? And why was the setting a college? From Caroline

    1. I read the book too long ago to be authoritative, but I’m not sure the meaning of “cheese monkey” was ever explained (wasn’t it the title of a sculpture?) Choosing a college as a setting is easy to figure out, though –it’s a great place for a coming-of-age novel and it allows Kidd to be explicitly didactic (via the teachers) in discussing the themes of his story.

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