About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

#93 - The Cheese Monkeys

I'm a sucker for college novels. Chip Kidd's The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters (Scribner, 2001) is not typical, nor is it perfect, but it is pretty darned funny in places. The anonymous narrator is, as the book begins, en route to an unnamed State U. to major in art, although he's none too enthusiastic about either one:
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.
While his first-term art teacher, the is-she-senile-or-just-plain-ditzy Dottie Spang, doesn't do much to dispel his ennui, we can't say the same for classmate Himillsy Dodd, creator of the emperor-has-no-clothes inspired title sculpture. Sure, she drinks too much and too early in the day, has so much artistic talent that she can't bear her peers' sophomoric efforts (and consequently sneaks into the studio and modifies them after hours), and frankly, seems a bit full of herself ... but at least she's interesting and unusual, and the narrator becomes more than a little enthralled with her. While he's quietly frustrated at her romantic unavailability (Himillsy, of course, has a steady boyfriend, the incredibly pompous architect Garnett), an odd friendship develops.

Together with a third classmate, excruciatingly earnest fish-out-of-water Maybelle Lee, the pair find only one art class still open when spring registration rolls around: the newly-renamed Introduction to Graphic Design, taught by Winter Sorbeck. This, my friends, is where the novel really picks up steam. As the Complete Review's review notes, the plot itself is only so-so, partly because Himillsy's character is so annoyingly self-righteous. (Perhaps it's just that I've been out of college long enough to have forgotten somethings, and on a campus long enough that I know its cliches. Alternately, perhaps the iconoclast really was a rarity in the '50s and early '60s, which would explain why (usually) she shows up and holds such fascination for other characters in novels set on college campuses during that period; Indignation and The Secret History come to mind, and that's just off the top of my head. But I digress.)

But the graphic design assignments and critiques are both biting and hilarious. Sorbeck is merciless, and more than a little crazy. The first class assignment has the students driven out into the middle of nowhere (yes, the same landscape does surround every college town) and expected to find rides home, armed only with a large sheet of posterboard and a permanent marker; later, a faculty art exhibition sees and smells Sorbeck exhibiting a load of crap -- literally. And the hapless Maybelle and kindred spirit Mike -- a non-traditional student with excellent technical skills, but next to no soul -- are positively shredded. Kidd himself is a designer, and apparently a well-known one (I believe this was one of his book covers ), and he clearly knows that of which he speaks. I'm usually a stickler for plot and character, but the art school/ design principles bits here were enough to overcome my usual preferences. Probably won't make my top 10 list for the year, but still an enjoyable read.

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