What I’ve Been Reading – The Cheese Monkeys

Until finishing The Cheese Monkeys, I hadn’t finished a book since before Isaac was born.

I mean, whoa. Right?

What I’ve read:

The Cheese Monkeys – Chip Kidd

To be honest, I didn’t think I’d finish this one either. I wanted to hate The Cheese Monkeys from the moment I picked it up. Without even reaching the actual writing, I could see that the book was packed with design-for-the-sake-of-design.

Chip Kidd - The Cheese MonkeysBlurbs were chopped from one page to the next, quips about blank pages and challenges to the reader’s assumptions, and an overall feeling of “look at how clever I am!” threatened to bog down the entire crusade.

But I got over all of that. Despite the fact that the writing was a little too Special Topics in Calamity Physics for my taste – by which I mean it was a little too cute; a little too unrealistic in that real people have never spoken like this in the history of language – I found myself forgetting all of the design cleverness that plagued the preface.

My reasons for enjoying the book:

1. I find the philosophy of design really interesting. At times, I find it long-winded and falsely anti-authoritarian, but it’s still really interesting. And this book, written by a graphic designer who is posing as a writer, deals with that philosophy in spades.

2. It reminded me of college. Not of the person I was, but of the traditions that reside therein. It reminded me of registration day, and the musty smell of lecture halls, and of studying late in the night, and of neighborhood bars.

3. There’s mystery. Despite the cuteness, there’s a mystery behind Winter Sorbeck, the Commercial Art/Graphic Design professor who attempts to make his students’ lives hell. It’s gripping.

Okay. Stop. Let’s amend that last one. While the mystery is gripping, the conclusion is maddening. I’ll add this:

3a. However, the answer to said mystery is a bunch of deus ex machina bullshit.

Yeah. I just went there.

The mystery behind W. Sorbeck is that he’s mysterious. You don’t really know his deal, despite attempts to crack the facade.

But then – boom! – a random outburst (our protagonist throws a wrapper on the ground; W. Sorbeck challenges our protagonist to discover the person who designed it; lo and behold! It’s W. Sorbeck! See? Deus Ex Machina Bullshit) and a drunken conversation at the bar lead to everything spilling out into the open.

So the Big Bad Professor suddenly has a soft spot because his work wasn’t appreciated? Unlikely he would care, given what we had learned about him previously. But it worked to move the plot along, I guess, and it was quickly forgotten. Mystery solved. And now what?

Well, from there, things get weird. Not plot advancing weird, but weird for its own sake, as if Kidd was eschewing plot for the sake of art.

The same art that he seems to both ridicule and embrace throughout The Cheese Monkeys, depending on the form.

The same art that he uses to muddy the final chapter into an impossible to understand mess.

In literature, if you want your final point to be interpreted freely, using the powers of deductive reasoning or scientific method or art theory or any of those other open-ended concepts, you need to at least first give some guidelines. You need to steer your reader in the right direction, then set him or her free to discover what he or she wants to discover WITHIN THE REALM OF YOUR STORY.

Chip Kidd doesn’t do that. Instead, he introduces some kind of confusing high art that he’s attempting to pass off as introspective literature. And he has the protagonist’s not-so-secret-crush do the deed, despite the reader knowing that she’s off kilter and nothing she does makes any sense within the solid structure of graphic design.

In this way, the book ends in the same way that the preface begins – each half separated from the other, impossible to understand as a whole, unconnected to previous events, unwilling to lead the reader in the right direction.

And in this way, 200 pages of fun design talk and college memories were smashed by an incomprehensible series of events that never manage to fit together and don’t even make sense in the end. Simply put, the book tried to be lofty, but simply couldn’t find the right propulsion to get it there.

Other than that, though, I totally liked it.

This was lovingly handwritten on September 9th, 2009