Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Chip Kidd: The Learners

The body of this review is formatted in three paragraphs, which should be read left to right, top to bottom. At the head of the body are bolded lines that delineate the author's name, the title of the book being reviewed, and the publisher. These should be seen first. A letter grade, also in bold, is at the foot of the body, and should be seen last. This gives the impression that the grade is the conclusion of the text which precedes it. All this would matter to Happy, the graphic-designer hero of The Learners, for whom "the world [is] one great big problem to solve," a search for the perfect match between form and content. But lately, content has been giving him some serious problems. Something is wrong with Happy, something is wrong with his life, and he can't fix it, no matter what typeface he sets it in.

Learners, Chip Kidd's follow-up to his debut novel, The Cheese Monkeys, is set three years after Monkeys' climax. Happy, now a college graduate, gets a job at the ad agency of his old mentor Winter Sorbeck, and soon settles in with a cast of oddballs, misfits, and fools; Kidd has knack for creating sympathetic grotesques, and initially, the novel reads like a twisted version of an office sitcom. But things take a darker turn when an old friend inspires Happy to participate in a Yale psychological study. At the study, he learns something about himself that he can't live with, sending the novel into a tailspin of confusion and fear from which it never entirely recovers.

Kidd is best known for his work as an innovative book-jacket designer, and, form-wise, Learners is a winner; the cover is eye-catching, and nearly every other page offers some new typographical treat. In Monkeys, Kidd married this strong visual sense with a nearly as strong coming-of-age narrative, using the genre's tropes (harsh teacher, first love) to riff on his own observations about art and the people who make it. Learners has the same distinctive voice, but without the earlier book's grounding; it's looser, more episodic, and frustratingly opaque. The form does its best to cover for a content that never quite realizes itself, but in the end, it's a snicker that builds to a scream without ever letting readers in on the joke.

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