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

#94 - The Learners

Hmm. It's been a few days since I finished The Learners, by Chip Kidd (Scribner, 2008), and I can't decide what I think. My first reaction was, I enjoyed it more than its predecessor, The Cheese Monkeys; there's less of Himillsy, for one thing, and as a former psych major, I have a soft spot for any novel in which the Milgram experiments play a central role. The folks at the Onion AV Club would beg to differ, calling Learners "frustratingly opaque." I don't know that I'd go that for, but with some time and distance, I think it falls in the "squarely OK" camp. Like Kidd's earlier novel, it's funny in places and has some interesting ideas, but wasn't really all that memorable.

The story opens in New Haven in 1961, three years after the conclusion of The Cheese Monkeys. Our narrator (who, three years after Winter Sorbeck coined the sobriquet, still goes by Happy) has graduated from State U., and moved to Yale's backyard in hopes of beginning his graphic design career at Spear, Rakoff, and Ware, as his old professor and mentor Sorbeck did his own so many years ago. Thanks to his determination and his ears, he succeeds, becoming the assistant to talented but underutilized partner Sketchy Spear. His comrades in arms are caricatures, sure, but they're quirky and entertaining ones: Tip, the affable and probably gay copywriter; Preston, the perpetually drunk and disengaged old-timer; Mimi, the somewhat-kooky matriarch who seems to love her Great Dane more than she ever loved her late husband; Nicky, Mimi's useless dilettante of a son; and the unfortunately-named Dick Stankey, the portly but jovial rep of Krinkle Kutt potato chips. One of the first assignments tossed Happy's way is to design a newspaper ad for a Yale psychology professor, who's recruiting subjects for an experiment on (cough, cough) learning and memory.

Not surprisingly, before too long, Himillsy Dodd rears her adorable pixie head again, although Happy hasn't seen her since just before the end of The Cheese Monkeys. Alas, after their brief reunion, she disappears again. After the fact, Happy receives a strange clue that leads him to suspect Himillsy had volunteered for the Yale experiment; curious, he himself signs up. His assignment comes as no great shock to us, but Happy is devastated -- even after it's revealed that the "learner" he was allegedly shocking was in cahoots with the experimenter, and the shocks were all fake. While Himillsy's participation is never confirmed, he blames himself for her fate, and torments himself obsessively with both his obedience and his complicity in designing the ad.

Happy's (and possibly Himillsy's) reaction to the experiments could be an interesting story, except that it's not particularly well-executed here. As in Cheese Monkeys, Kidd's character development is exaggerated rather than subtle, and his descriptions of Happy's nightmares have an almost comic-book feel to them (not surprising, for a graphic artist). In a nutshell, the New York Times review called The Learners "witty and well observed as an office comedy, as a meditation on art and as a story of self-discovery. But it rings false when Kidd aims for themes of greater tragedy; when Happy comes to a dark self-realization after participating in the Milgram experiment (in which most subjects gave the “learners” the maximum jolt), his reaction often plays more like an adolescent funk than the genuine crisis of the soul Kidd seems to aim for." I think I have to agree.

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