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Book Review: The Learners by Chip Kidd

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What does green sound like?

Just answer off the top of your head. I'll wait.

Not sure? Confused? Then welcome to the world of Happy, the conversational first-person narrator of Chip Kidd's The Learners.

Happy gets to answer questions like that — or play word association and word-opposite games — at his new job at the New Haven, Connecticut advertising agency. Coworker Tip Skikne is always looking for ways to stimulate his ad copy-writing brain.

And Tip is, well, just the tip of things when it comes to the people who inhabit the world of Spear, Rakoff & Ware. Among the others are Sketchy, the incredible artist who's wasted his talent for years at the agency; Miss Preech, an ice-cold receptionist with "scarlet talons"; and Mimi Rakoff, the super-skinny, pink-crazed president who took over following her husband's death. The characters are vividly, if not always lovingly, drawn.

It is in their world of ink, text, and advertising pitches that the story comes alive. I particularly enjoyed the peeks into typefaces and ads, complete with visual examples. The layout of the book continues the artistic aesthetic, with wide page margins, stark black and white drawings on front and back (with a removable red flap), and unusually cropped pages at the front that feature the name, cover art and publication information.

All of which is fitting considering Kidd's background. The Learners is his second novel, following 2001's The Cheese Monkeys (where readers first meet Happy as an art student). Kidd is a graphic designer who's well-known for his book jacket designs.

Kidd's talent for the visually appealing continues in his storytelling, which reveals a knack for clever, creative description and artistic prose, with a sense of humor. From The Learners:

"He looked over at a small drawing table in the corner I hadn't noticed before. It was smudged with ink and dotted with mummified bits of masking tape and it was all I ever wanted and its beauty mocked me."

"The two of them together would practically vibrate in frenzied syncopation, like mixed plaids that somehow harmonized successfully, despite the laws of aesthetic cohesion."

"I was still in a kind of shock – were I to wake up in my bed in the next second, Himillsy gone like a smoke ring, I would not have been surprised."

It is only when Kidd takes his narrator into the world of psychologist Stanley Milgram's experiment on human obedience to authority that the author doesn't quite nail things down. The experiment, and more notably its effect on Happy, are less interesting, surprisingly perhaps, than the goings-on at the ad agency. As Happy struggles with the mental repercussions of his participation (and also the resurfacing of an old friend), the story becomes less involving and a little unbelievable.

The The Learners remains an easy read, though, and one notable for its creativity and distinct voice. I expect Kidd has a decent career ahead of him in novels, if the graphic design thing falls through.

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About Melissa Cuppett