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.

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