Graphic designs on a story
It’s a rare affair when a satirical book can be looked at as an objet d’art, and rarer still when the seductive mishmash is offered twice. Legendary book designer Chip Kidd, in his second novel, “The Learners,” repeats and evolves the typographical high jinks he gave us in “The Cheese Monkeys.” The text is again boxed in by spacious margins. The shouting is again presented in all-caps. Both books include a homage to the opening laundry list in Don DeLillo’s “White Noise,” replete with reference to station wagons. Both contain instructive asides on graphic design. A college pal from the first book returns, only to disappear. But this isn’t just wry anticlimax.
Instead of academia, the catalyst this time around is Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram’s famous 1960s obedience experiment. Our hero, Happy, is the not-so-happy guinea pig. Instead of “Cheese Monkeys’ ” two semesters, we get three sections (“Before,” “During” and “After”). The graphical shock value is more subtle this time, but Kidd amps up his knack for wild description. Happy describes how his “pulse went from 45 to 78 rpm.” A co-worker carries “the most astonishing contradiction of components I’d ever encountered.” A woman passes the time “roasting under a Promethean hair dryer.” Happy hears “the rapid-fire click of high heels, angry on the linoleum floor,” an awkward juxtaposition that may cause some readers to be on the lookout for sentient stilettos. There are PAPS! and PLUNKS! scattered throughout and more typefaces than in a street sweeper’s pile of fliers on a Sunday morning.
But Kidd’s narrative mostly works, particularly when Happy endures the dreaded experiment. Kidd fuels this scientific subterfuge by cribbing dialogue from Milgram’s experiments, emphasizing the psychological manipulation by capitalizing words that the subject must offer an answer to. He uses a crisp gothic font for the switches that control the shock levels, and italicizes the baleful “Bzzzt” and the subject’s pleas to stop shocking. As Happy obeys the instructor’s commands (“The experiment requires you to continue”), the dialogue, quite literally, is caught in a textual trap.
This doesn’t come across as a showy postmodern trick because Kidd takes up the relationship between content and design quite early. One of Happy’s advertisements -- the one designed to sucker in New Haven rubes for Milgram’s “study of memory” -- is presented with dutiful arrows and design explanations. In the “I Can Come” blank, “Weekends” has one dot fewer than the other two options to provide a “subtle but undeniable message: weekdays and evenings are preferred.” This echoes some of the book’s paragraphs, which contain a slightly increased indent that offsets the established house style. There are also amusing page-length interruptions on “Content as Deception,” “Content as Irony” and “Content as Metaphor.”
Kidd loses momentum in the book’s third section. As Happy tries to get his bearings after the experiment, the imagery remains somewhat vivid but takes on a slightly more pedestrian form (“the mosquito drone of the TV test pattern”). And when Happy’s breakdown is offset by the contrapuntal remedy of advertising slogans -- "[p]seudo-haikus of whimsical, doomed hope,” as he describes them -- it comes across as belabored. Snags are inevitable when it comes to form versus function, but Kidd’s quirky approach to life is endearingly recognizable in its expression.