three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
By: 
Chip Kidd
user_rating: 
0

A-The LearnersIntroduced in The Cheese Monkeys (2001), Happy, a recent art school graduate in the 1960s, lands a job as a graphic designer at a small, quirky New Haven ad agency. He happily navigates his new world of eccentric colleagues and lunchtime cocktails as he learns the trade. When he designs a small newspaper ad for a psychological study on authority and obedience, he willingly embraces the era of experimentation and answers it himself. He soon becomes involved in the infamous Milgram experiments as a "teacher" who administers dangerous electric shocks to "learners." Soon enough, Happy is not so, well, happy—and starts to confront some long-held beliefs about himself.
Scribner. 258 pages. $26. ISBN: 0743255240

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As Happy tries to get his bearings after the experiment, the imagery remains somewhat vivid but takes on a slightly more pedestrian form. … Snags are inevitable when it comes to form versus function, but Kidd’s quirky approach to life is endearingly recognizable in its expression." Edward Champion

Newsday 3.5 of 5 Stars
"For me, the resolution of the story sped by too fast, with subthemes suggested rather than explored—though perhaps that will be remedied if Kidd follows Happy to a new locale in his next novel?" Dekker Dare

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Reading The Cheese Monkeys beforehand will add more depth to the overall picture of Happy’s life (like how he got his nickname). Both novels are humorous and insightful and full of amusingly accurate scenes from the early 1960s—right down to the three-martini lunches and pillbox hats." Nicole Chvatal

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Best known for his book-jacket designs, Kidd puts the story on pause at times so he can discuss design, literary styles and the link between form and content. The interludes may be self-conscious, but they’re also genuinely interesting and mercifully brief." Robert Bianco

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"Although Happy’s odd adventures are captivating, there is an essential element missing from this sequel: the unique graphic design assignments that Happy and his classmates at State U. received in The Cheese Monkeys. … So design professors (and others) hoping to score a sheaf of cool new design assignments will have to stick with Kidd’s first book." Laura Distel

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Where [it] fails, when it does, is in character development, tone, affect—all those intangibles that are neither Form nor Content, but are conjured up by the interplay of the two." James Poniewozik

Critical Summary

Graphic designer and novelist Chip Kidd is best known for his smart book-jacket designs for Donna Tartt, David Sedaris, and Michael Crichton, among others. He used his innovative design elements to explore the relationship between form and content in The Cheese Monkeys, and he employs the same design virtuosity here, though critics diverged in opinion about how much virtuosity, exactly, was enough. While most reviewers praised Kidd’s design talent, a few thought he courted gimmickry with his page and font designs, and others thought he didn’t go far enough. With the exception of the New York Times Book Review, however, reviewers agreed on Kidd’s ample literary talent—his dark, satirical wit, solid characterizations, and ability to explore the dark abyss of the human soul. For pure originality, there’s little else like The Learners—except, of course, The Cheese Monkeys, where readers may wish to start.