April 2008


The Learners, by Chip Kidd
Scribner’s, 258 pages.

I mentioned The Learners a while back; a couple of reviews noted its similarity to Mad Men, so I thought it was worth checking out.

It opens with language I’ll treasure forever:

I was in the shower when I realized where I’d gone wrong…there I was, the water drilling away, its wet warmth my amniotic tide, the shower curtain a plastic, plaid uterine wall. Then it occurs to me, like a gift from God: Shoes are our friends.

Our friends.

Not just our acquaintances, the occasional giggly aunt and bald uncle over for dinner, the neighbors down the hall you have to say hello to—but the confidants we carefully screen and select over the course of a lifetime, our intimates.

It’s 1961 in New Haven. Recent graphic design graduate “Happy” wants to start out at the same ad agency his favorite teacher and mentor started at. So, he seeks work at Spear, Rakoff, and Ware, an advertising firm with an excellent reputation back in 1939, but now a run-down bit of nowhere. This isn’t Sterling Cooper. It’s made up of people who have heard that New York is where you go if you want to succeed, and are afraid to try. Happy is different, of course, following in his mentor’s footsteps with every intention of moving on, but the experience proves profound.

The novel is intimately and utterly about advertising, specifically advertising design, and is definitely not about that. Advertising design is a lens through which Happy (and clearly, Chip Kidd) see the world. There is form (layout, typography, illustration) and then there is content (which can be deceptive, metaphorical, ironic, or sincere). Form hides or enhances content. But this isn’t design; this is life. There’s what we see, and then there’s what is. There’s the trickery of the world, and then there’s whatever is actually going on. Truth and lies. The pretty dress on a corpse. The celebratory toast preceding a disaster. Form that masks content.

Kidd dresses up his novel with typography and design, explaining the old-fashioned way of page layout, using font and layout within the novel itself to illustrate and illuminate (and deceive). It’s funny and I laughed aloud several times (like when reading the quote above), but The Learners is not primarily comedic. Comedy is the form here, the content addresses a tragedy that Happy must face, and its unexpected aftermath. I’m inclined to give away less information than even the publisher gives, because I think it might surprise you, and if you see it coming, well bully for you.

It’s a skillful writer that can weave wit and sorrow, fear and typography. Kidd’s style is deft.

Upon looking up the Amazon page for linking, I discovered that The Learners is a sequel to Kidd’s first novel, The Cheese Monkeys, but nothing in reading this book indicated to me that it was a sequel. That alone is a testament to the strength of the writing, because really, when does that happen? Reading sequels out of order is annoying because the feeling of “sequel” bleeds through. Not here.

Mad Men stuff: There is no way you can walk away without a strong understanding about what goes on in Salvatore’s department, and the era is richly painted, but it’s not as committed to its time as Mad Men; it’s not television, after all, with all those gorgeous visuals, and the novel exists mostly in Happy’s head.

Yeah I was working on this. Even had a cute title, “the Boys of Sommer”. So now I must rethink and rewrite.

Okay, I’m better now. Here we go.

Rich Sommer (aka Harry Crane) has, as my sister has mentioned, a really cute blog. He posted today on several topics, among them, his excitement to be shooting Season Two, and the nerdfest that is he, Aaron Staton (Ken Cosgrove) and Bryan Batt (Salvatore).

From ze post:

Also, at work the other day, Bryan schooled Aaron and me at No Thanks!. I exacted my revenge via a rousing game of Loco!. I will make game nerds of them all. And maybe we will play games whose names don’t end in exclamation points.

And uh, btw, you guys know he reads BoK, right? The occasional comment can be found. (So Rich, would it kill you to add us to your blogroll?)

Just a quick quote from Rich Sommer, because it delights me:

We have started shooting season two of Mad Men. This makes me happy. The scripts have been amazing, and it’s been wonderful being back at work with so many people I respect and adore.

Don, easing into the Kodak pitch:

…in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound.

Peggy, stiffly entering the Rejuvenator team presentation:

Women lose weight so they’ll feel good about themselves. Healthier, more attractive.

Rejuvenate has a Latin root which literally means the return of youth.

The Rejuvenator give you the flush and glow, not only that you might have after hours of exercise, but certainly as a young girl.

Isn’t it nice to feel that way whenever you want.

Combined with a sensible diet…

the Rejuvenator.

Youll love the way it makes you feel.

Don’s response:

First of all, no Latin. You sound like a valedictorian.

The scene of Peggy’s presentation is endlessly fascinating, line by line, moment by moment (as is well, every scene in this series). Don and the guys force Peggy to be tough and manly, but there is a gentle quality as well; this is by no means a hazing. Peggy herself is dressing more and more like the German marketing researcher, and holds it together well, but there is such a feminine, even girlish quality to her.

As for the Greek versus Latin… is it just another writer’s trick (not Don and Peggy, but Weiner and co.) that is simply music with words, that we are not meant to notice? Is it one more way to compare Peggy and Don?

Are the two moments (and references to ancient languages at the opening of a presentation) unrelated? Please note they both say ‘literally’, so I’m gonna go with No. Are we saying that the same rules don’t apply to Don that apply to Peggy (which is fair; after all, you teach your students to color within the lines, while you yourself can Pollock all over the place). Peggy did present it like a valedictorian… more uppity than Peggy has a right to be. This echoes her date, just a few scenes earlier. Don presents anecdotally. An everyman. And maybe there’s your theme.

Mad Men is showing for the first time in the U.K., and there are reviews all over the British press. Here’s a terrific interview in The Guardian that will just stop your heart (perhaps I exaggerate). Hamm is so well-spoken, so compelling, so unlike reading a star interview.

Best reveal: Hamm used to teach after-school daycare for toddlers.

Best quote (about whether he wants kids):

I don’t necessarily want kids. A lot of our friends are having children and I don’t know if it’s for me. I haven’t come down hardcore on either side of the argument. I think when people come from a stable family having children becomes a celebration and I’m not sure it would be that way for me.

See what I mean about your heart?

AMC reports that Vincent Kartheiser will be receiving a Young Hollywood Award tomorrow (Sunday) night.

The awards are sponsored by Hollywood Life Magazine; the “official site” for the awards doesn’t mention Kartheiser, or indeed, much about the awards in any kind of organized fashion. It’s just some breathless gossip about “up-and-coming “it” stars in tinseltown…” GODS, do people really still say “Tinseltown”? Without capitalizing it? Anyway, this is why it sucks to be a blogger, these people are not designing their sites for me to figure stuff out. So thanks to AMC for the info.

A few thoughts about Helen Bishop in New Amsterdam.

She and Betty get pretty up close and personal, (though it pales in comparison with Glen Bishop’s version of up close and personal. But enough about that). With Helen and Betty you certainly never feel that they connect. Betty hears a lot about a marriage gone bad. It is probably the first time she’s ever heard these kinds of details from a divorcée.

Later in the episode, Betty tells Dr. Wayne, (aka “Mr. Personality”) that Helen is likely jealous of her.

Wait. Seriously? Umm… didn’t Helen witness Don walking out on Betty at Sally’s birthday party a few weeks earlier? More than witness it; she was part of the rescue committee, what with her Sara Lee cake.

There is this one moment I love; Don comes home late, sees Betty and Helen sitting on the couch, gives a very brief and polite hello and then slinks up the stairs. I found it hilarious. So much unspoken from Don—What the hell could they possibly be talking about? Damn, she’s my type. Wow, she knows I ran out on my kid’s birthday party. I am SO not allowed to talk to that woman.

And somehow I felt like Helen got all that subtext, and was unphased. Helen is a bit like Joan in her understanding of men and their responses to women. (more…)

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