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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Cheese Monkeys

Chip Kidd

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To purchase The Cheese Monkeys

Title: The Cheese Monkeys
Author: Chip Kidd
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001
Length: 274 pages
Availability: The Cheese Monkeys - US
The Cheese Monkeys - UK
The Cheese Monkeys - Canada
  • A Novel in Two Semesters

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Our Assessment:

B- : some interesting graphic detail but fairly clumsy as a work of fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times A+ 21/10/2001 Mark Rozzo
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 14/10/2001 Thomas Hine
The Times A+ 18/1/2003 Carola Long

  From the Reviews:
  • "If occasionally twee, Kidd's funhouse designs never fail to thrill. The same could be said of this unexpected, terrific novel by the designer himself: a tip of the pencil point to content from the form meister." - Mark Rozzo, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Rather than discourse on theory, Kidd has embedded his beliefs in the old, universally appealing stories of maturity, finding your calling in life and being inspired by, and loving, a demanding, serious and highly eccentric teacher." - Thomas Hine, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Twinkling with surreal images and ideas, this cool and hilarious novel deserves to become a modern classic." - Carola Long, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Chip Kidd is a leading graphic designer. He is best known as a designer of book covers. His great talents in this area are indisputable.
       In The Cheese Monkeys he has shifted his attention to what is between the book covers. Writing is not his chosen métier, but one imagines that while designing all those book covers he occasionally concerned himself with what was between them. Apparently it looked pretty easy and so he decided to have a go at garnering some authorial glory as well. It just involves stringing words together, after all.
       The Cheese Monkeys is, as the subtitle explains, "a novel in two semesters". It describes the narrator's first two semesters at the local state university, in 1957-58. Ah yes, a coming-of-age novel, a finding-oneself novel, a novel of academia. Maybe a touch of Cold War in the background ? No ? All right: simple academia then. A college novel -- though only two semesters' worth.
       The narrator isn't even too thrilled about going to college, but off he goes ("not going didn't seem to be a choice -- any more than not going through puberty"). And if he is already going to college, the next logical step for him is to major in Art:

Majoring in Art at the state university appealed to me because I have always hated Art, and I had a hunch if any school would treat the subject with the proper disdain, it would be one that was run by the government.
       Apparently that makes some sort of sense. Ah, college kids -- masters of the dialectic ... frat boys ... artsy souls. You know how they are. How it is. Hell, if you don't think about it too hard, it's almost funny.
       Maybe it's just "Art" he hates, not "art". But it turns out he doesn't know much about "Art" ("Who the hell was McGreet ?" our narrator wonders, in best bumpkin fashion), so that probably isn't it.
       The novel focusses on a single course he takes in each semester: "Art 101: Introduction to Drawing" in the fall of 1957, and "Art 127: Introduction to Commercial Art" in the spring of 1958. (He takes other courses too, but these get extremely short shrift.)
       The fall semester serves basically to introduce most of the cast of characters. Our green but sympathetic narrator slowly adjusts to college life, bemusedly trying to make his way through the basic art course (taught, inevitably, by a teacher who is dotty ... pardon: by a teacher whose name is Dottie). He makes some friends, notably the overly sincere Maybelle Lee and free spirit Himillsy Dodd. He has some fun.
       But it is all just preamble. The story really only gets going with the spring semester. The only art class the narrator (and Maybelle and Himillsy) can get into is Art 127 -- which the new teacher has renamed "Introduction to Graphic Design". (And a sigh of relief goes up, as author Kidd moves us to his home ground.)
       The teacher is a mystery man named Winter Sorbeck. He is a true believer, a graphic idealist. He explains the difference between what the "Cookie Cutters" called the course ("Introduction to Commercial Art") and what he insists on calling it:
Commercial Art tries to make you buy things. Graphic Design gives you ideas. One natters on and on, the other actually has something to say.
       Sorbeck is a demanding pedagogue. Unconventional teaching methods are immediately put to use to winnow out those that are unfit (with some, though not complete success). And he challenges those students that remain with the tasks he assigns (and the generally devastating critiques he then unleashes). When something knocks his socks off -- as very rarely happens -- he'll be the first to admit it, but most of the time the students don't live up to his high expectations.
       But Sorbeck is a true teacher. He gets to his students. He arouses their passions. He forces them to go far beyond what they had ever thought themselves capable of.
       There is a whiff of obsessive demagoguery to the unconventional instructor:
Winter: "Kiddies, Graphic Design, if you wield it effectively, is Power. Power to transmit ideas that change. Power that can destroy an entire race or save a nation from despair."
       But Sorbeck isn't able to wield his power all that effectively, and the stink he eventually raises, challenging the Cookie Cutter powers that be, leads to his inevitable demise. But not before he has changed a few of his students' lives.
       There is more going on here too. For one: the narrator's uncertain roller-coaster relationship with Himillsy -- a lively lass who remains hard to pin down. There are college goings-on, from roommate problems to a frat party that gets out of hand. There is the obligatory drunken excess -- with the narrator, Himillsy, and Sorbeck each completely losing control at some point. There are petty (and not so petty) personal revenges.
       Do the characters find themselves ? The final events are quite "desolating", but the narrator does stand up and with a crack and a SNAP! claim his independence. He seems on firmer ground by the end, but two other characters disappear completely, one fleeing, the other literally fading out.

       As one might expect, Kidd does the graphic design elements of the story well. The assignments Sorbeck gives out, the resulting projects, the various critiques, and some of the theorizing are all solid and entertaining.
       But then there is the rest of the book.
       It remains fairly unclear why there even is this rest of the book. It is almost entirely superfluous. Some of the scenes between the narrator and Himillsy are decent, but beyond these practically nothing that happens outside the classroom is of much significance or interest. There are a few dramatic events (or rather, events that are meant to be seen as dramatic), and Kidd makes them seem pivotal to his tale, but really the novel could almost do as well without them. Or, actually: better.
       Kidd pokes fun at the academic art establishment, and college life in general, but none of this is original -- or particularly interesting or funny. Sorbeck's act of professional suicide, for example, couldn't be more sophomoric -- and seems a complete cop out on the part of both Sorbeck and Kidd.
       Kidd's characters are almost entirely composed of quirk, and there are only a handful of scenes in which they could pass for real people.
       The writing is just decent enough, though lazy. Kidd begins worrisomely revelling in hyperbole: "Campus -- God. It was a city, really. No -- a state." Or: "She had brought enough art supplies to produce the Sistine ceiling." There may not be laws against this kind of writing (though we'd gladly support any proposed legislation on the matter), but outside a junior high writing class this sort of stuff is unacceptable. (And, while we're nitpicking: "produce the Sistine chapel" ?)
       Worse yet, the story has little flow or style. Indeed, most of the time Kidd just natters on and on, instead of having something to say.
       The shame of it is that there are worthwhile nuggets here: Kidd does have some interesting things to say -- about graphic design. The sections of the novel set in Sorbeck's classroom are, for the most part, really quite good. The writing isn't especially good, but at least Kidd has something to say and he manages to convey it. The rest is largely flimsy artifice, clumsily pieced together.

       Chip Kidd is a craftsman. Each of his covers is testament to the love and respect he has for his art. It is all the more disappointing then that he shows so little respect for this other art which he tries his hand at here.
       Sure, it's only fiction. Story-telling. Fabulation. No one gives much of a damn about doing that right any longer. Character development ? Plot ? Language ? That's asking for too much. If it looks like a novel, that's good enough, apparently.
       The Cheese Monkeys can certainly pass for fiction. Kidd's writing isn't great, but it is not atrocious either. Certainly adequate by current standards. There is a story here. Or some sort of stories, or something. And he does slip in some good and interesting stuff about something he knows about. Literary aspirations are obviously too much to expect.

       What can we say ? We're probably being unduly harsh regarding Mr. Kidd's foray into fiction. No: we're not unduly harsh, but our expectations are unrealistic. In these times. In these lands.
       Maybe the novel is dead. Authors generally certainly don't seem to be putting much effort into crafting novels any longer. Yes, yes, some still do -- but most .....
       Most make Cheese Monkeys. "A novel in two semesters". It almost trumpets its insufficiency, acknowledging that it won't go beyond this fraction of the college experience.
       There is the hint of a worthwhile book somewhere in The Cheese Monkeys. There are ideas, even finished sentences (a few). But he misplaced them here. Why did he have to write fiction ? Why a novel ? Why didn't he write the book he could and should write. Focussed on graphic design. Perhaps with some fictional elements, but solidly grounded in what he knows and feels comfortable with.
       Instead his words and ideas squirm uneasily in this second-rate fiction.

       The name, of course, will sell the book. Chip Kidd. The name, perhaps, is the book's raison d'être. Books are, after all, judged by their covers. What more could one wish for than a book filled with content conceived by an accomplished coverman ?
       Superagent Binky Urban apparently brokered Kidd's deal with publisher Scribner. We just hope we never find out how much he got paid for this -- money that could have been spent buying real books. If there are still any real books out there. And not that that's what publishers would be spending their money on anyway.
       The Cheese Monkeys will probably sell well. But we can't recommend that you make much of an effort to get your hands on it. Maybe you could buy some Knopf title -- one of those literary novels they still occasionally publish -- with a nice Kidd-cover instead .....

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The Cheese Monkeys: Reviews: Chip Kidd: Other books of interest under review:
  • Marty Asher's The Boomer, artfully illustrated by Kidd
  • See the Index of Contemporary American fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Graphic designer (and now author) Charles (yes, Charles) "Chip" Kidd is "associate art director of jackets and special projects at Knopf Publishing".

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© 2001-2008 the complete review

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