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The Cheese Monkeys

Chip Kidd

Perennial / Harper Collins

US Trade Paperback

ISBN 0-06-050740-3

Publication Date: 09-03-2002

274 Pages; $13.95

Date Reviewed: 10-02-02  

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



General Fiction


The tale of the crusty old teacher who changes his students won't go away any more than the crusty old teachers. 'The Cheese Monkeys' by Chip Kidd takes that tale into some charming new territory. Set in the art department of a mid-western university in the 1950's, 'The Cheese Monkeys' is refreshingly chaste, occasionally gross and often witty. Kidd's characters stand out even in a novel so graphically intensive it was written with a page design program. Kidd's fifties setting allows him to get straight to the essence of personal interactions and artistic philosophy. It also allows his teacher to get up to things that would never be allowed in today's schools while his students evade the onslaught of sex and drugs that characterize current college life. Described as "A Novel in Two Semesters" it starts out a bit on the slight side, but the lightweight beginning sets up a surprisingly strong follow-through. Sharply written and bracingly acerbic, 'The Cheese Monkeys' will surprise the unwary reader with some tenacious thoughts about art and creativity.

In a mid-western university in 1957 ("State U"), the nameless narrator ("Happy") signs up as an Art major. He meets Maybel Lee ("Maybeleene") and Himillsy Dodd ("Hims"). Maybeleene is a southern belle with some resolve and talent. Hims is a firecracker Audrey Hepburn, smart-mouthed and confrontational. Together they weather a couple of art classes. If it sounds somewhat underfed, at first it seems that way. The first class, Introduction to Drawing, is taught by the rather dull Dorothy Spang. Fortunately Kidd can be funny, and he gets his first out-loud laugh early on in this section. Combined with his very easygoing prose style, his humor will hook most readers. It's worth hanging around for the second semester, because once Winter Sorbeck gets in the picture, the picture gets a lot more interesting. Sorbeck and Hims square off and provide some very entertaining insights into the process of art and graphic design. Sorbeck's projects are outrageously fascinating in conception. It's a shame that they would never fly in today's safety-first environment. They provide some hugely entertaining set-pieces and provocative thought-pieces.

The novel is carefully designed on all levels. The narrative elements of the novel are assembled in an almost graphic fashion, with themes, riffs and concepts juggled like colors and shapes. Watch for the font change -- it couldn't come at a more appropriate moment in the novel. From the pictogram front cover, the split blurbs, and the page-side messages to the final phrase on the final page, 'The Cheese Monkeys' conflates style and substance into a fine, far-too-easily-read novel. Kidd's prose and dialogue occasionally seem a bit modern for its practically prehistoric protagonists, but it still works in an arch nod-and-a-wink way.

The hard data on graphic design is extremely fascinating, and Kidd's trashing of untouched paragons of modern art is a hoot. He delights in confounding expectations of good, now-approved tastes. He's not above a vomit joke, but he's certainly up for a discussion of typefaces and fonts. It's an odd combination. The kind of crudity that seems mandatory in some novels is eschewed for a silly delight. The artistic banter is never stilted or pretentious. 'The Cheese Monkeys' might be the perfect tonic for a reading palate jaded by the success of excess.