The Learners by Chip Kidd
|The Learners by Chip Kidd|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Simon Regan|
|Summary: Witty, fast-moving, and gently experimental, Chip Kidd's The Learners continues the story of his protagonist from The Cheese Monkeys with flair and obvious passion for his subject. At times razor-sharp satire of the graphic design industry through the lens of a dysfunctional 1960s advertising firm, at others wince-inducing psychological drama, The Learners is a gripping read, if over all too soon.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 272||Date: April 2008|
|Publisher: Simon & Schuster International|
The Learners is billed as the book after the Cheese Monkeys, Kidd's critically acclaimed debut novel and first attempt to move from the outside of books to their contents. Graphic designer Chip Kidd has been described as the rock star of the book covers world, with clients ranging from Dean Koontz to Frank Miller, and was responsible for the cover design (carried over to the film marketing) that made Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park an instantly recognisable brand.
The Learners continues the story of Kidd's protagonist, who presents himself to the world with the nickname Happy ('Not in any descriptive way, God knows.'). The nickname is used throughout The Learners in a number of seemingly throwaway puns before it comes crashing down with awful force in the final Joycean monologue. In Kidd's second novel, set in 1961, Happy's out of college and looking to follow in the footsteps of Winter Sorbeck, the teacher who bestowed upon him his sardonic soubriquet. Landing an entrance-level job with his idol's old advertising firm, he must contend with the various eccentric characters with whom he is forced to work whilst trying to make his mark as a graphic designer. However, when Stanley Milgram (the real-life behavioral psychologist) approaches the firm to advertise for subjects in what turns out to be his infamous deindividuation experiment, Happy is forced to confront the darker side of his personality. It's spun into a murder mystery where the murder itself is imaginary, and the result is compelling.
Despite its official status as a sequel (many characters in The Learners are derived from Kidd's earlier work), the novel stands firmly on its own. From the introduction onwards, it's obvious Kidd intends The Learners to be accessible to new readers, and without knowledge of his earlier work, it's not even clear it's a continuation of an existing story.
As one might expect from a graphic designer of Kidd's calibre, The Learners is more than just a book – it's an art object. The cover features striking black-and-white comic book-style art, with a mechanism crucial to the plot obscured by a slanting half-jacket, which features the blurb and the author's photograph split between the front and back. Throughout the novel, typographical digressions spice up the text and slyly mirror the ongoing story. Typeface is also used to devastating effect in the narrative proper: for example, when a conversation takes place over ignored cries for help, the former is literally laid over the top, black and bold, whilst the latter fades into the page.
There's a touch of the experimental in Kidd's narrative style and effects, and even in the way the book is set out. There are no chapters – instead, the book is grouped into three time periods ('Before,' 'During,' and 'After'). In the final moments of The Learners Kidd, for reasons that become clearer upon a second reading, switches to phonetic spelling, with each word made up of a stream-of-consciousness collection of other words. It's intriguing stuff without being too overpowering, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Kidd manages to avoid the frequently tiresome sex, drugs and rock n' roll of contemporary fiction by dint of setting it in the more genteel atmosphere of the early 60s. It reads at times like a work of modern autobiography, although Kidd, born in 1964, is careful to note this is indeed a work of fiction…. The Learners specialises in razor-sharp wit manifested through snappy exchanges and headily satirical character portraits, eschewing crudity in favour of wince-inducing social situations and painful self-awareness.
The Learners is not a long book – though it weighs in at a respectable 258 pages, each page has a broad margin, approximating the look of a quarter-page advert. The effect is to draw in the reader's eye, but as a result the novel is less lengthy than it appears. However, there are enough shades of meaning and clever self-referential moments that this may not be a problem for readers who like to mull over what they've read and appreciate its full effect. Witty, fast-moving, and gently experimental, The Learners is a gripping read, if over all too soon.
Thanks to the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Learners by Chip Kidd at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Learners by Chip Kidd at Amazon.com.
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