Chip Kidd might be a name you don’t know, but his work is one of the best arguments in favor of judging a book by its cover. Creator of hundreds of book jackets, he is associate art director at Knopf, as well as a freelancer for other publishers. He turns out an average of 75 cover designs per year (some of which you might recognize), and also supervises graphic novels at Pantheon. So a reader might be excused for not expecting much of his novels, thinking of him as a skillful packager, rather than a creator of books.
As it turns out, he tells a good story, too. I finished his second novel, The Learners recently, and found it an entertaining look at a small advertising firm in the 60s. This isn’t “Mad Men“, but something much smaller. The subtitle is the book after the Cheese Monkeys, which was his novel of art school in the 50s. Now Happy, the main character, has graduated, and landed his first advertising job at the same firm where his teacher first started. Populated by an assortment of tragicomic characters, as well as a Great Dane named (wait for it…) Hamlet, the firm struggles to keep its primary contract, the Krinkle Kutt Potato Chip account. 21st century graphic designers will be struck by how different their profession was before it became digital –a lot of erasing goes on in the book.
There’s a hilarious section on the contortions Happy goes through to create a 3 3/4″ x 6″ newspaper ad: he sweats through each design decision, right down to the font and point size. The ad seeks participants for a Yale University Psychology Department study purported to be about memory, but really is far more sinister. Happy answers the ad, and is shaken to his foundations as a result. (The study itself is real: Professor Stanley Milgram’s actual subject was obedience to authority. Click here to read a NY Times article about this experiment, including a slide show of historic photos.)
This book is a engrossing look at a very specific world in the 60s, driven along plotwise by the Milgram experiment and its decidedly unhappy effect on Happy. The humor is black, and the themes are big. Author Amy Bloom says
The Learners is as dark as India ink and its fine lines are sure and sharp and funny. As in life, people behave badly, and truly, and are only occasionally redeemed but often sorry. Kidd has created an unexpected narrative voice that moves and provokes and a novel that is, startlingly and even sweetly, not like anything else.
author photo: Euan Kerr/Minnesota Public Radio