Next on my list out of the four books I spontaneously bought was Chip Kidd’s ‘The Cheese Monkeys’, subtitled ‘A Novel in Two Semesters’. For those not...moreNext on my list out of the four books I spontaneously bought was Chip Kidd’s ‘The Cheese Monkeys’, subtitled ‘A Novel in Two Semesters’. For those not familiar with the author’s name, you’d probably be familiar with at least a few pieces of his work, given he’s basically designed every worthwhile book cover on the planet (or at least that’s the impression his wiki gives). It’s kind of obvious that this is a book telling of design, as the book itself has a few quirky features, the most startling of which is the optical illusion that covers the whatever-the-technical-word-for-the-bit-opposite-the-spine-is-where-the-pages-come-out. Basically the edges of the pages look they’ve had a big smudge over them until you bend the book one way, whereupon those smudges resolve themselves into the words “Do you see?”. And then, ever the intrepid explorer, you bend the book the other way to see that they now form the words “Good is dead”. If you are anything like me, this has already made the book a worthwhile purchase.
Anyway, the subtitle is appropriate, as this is essentially an exaggerated autobiographical account of Kidd’s days taking art classes at college. More specifically the first semester is Kidd taking generic art classes and befriending the unstoppably quirky and independent Himillsy Dodd. Himillsy is difficult to describe, but if you take the teenage Juno, beat the irritating “Look at me I’m indie” out of her, grow her up a little, hurt her a bit to encourage the cynicism, then chuck her in a world of pretentious art world and let her develop the sense of hatred for stupidity and trends. That’s Himillsy (Hims, Mills, Millie).
From here, the narrator (already relatively unimpressed by the courses he’s been offered) is thrown into a design course in the second semester of the book. Specifically a design course with a sarcastic, highly intelligent, sadist design professor (who, apparently, invented the Wrigley’s gum wrapper double arrow) named Winter Sorbeck. As far as I can tell, Winter is essentially Kidd’s voice of design speaking through the book. He is an utter bastard, willing to rip off his student’s work, burn their assignments, berate them into leaving, and set them impossible tasks in order to get them to really appreciate the purpose of ‘design’. He sees graphic design as an elite art of translating ideas ans associations captured constantly from the world into concepts that leap at their audiences. Sorbeck is the art teacher that you’ve always wanted. The kind that abuses you for mediocrity, but has the expertise to back up the beratement, and the eventual humanity to award you.
There are lessons to be learned from this book. It is uplifting, even throughout the utterly insane scenes of penile blackmail. If nothing else it serves as a very light introduction to methods involved in modern design. Personally it did make me sit back and wonder what might have been, and what still could be, if I made a serious effort in the creative arts. It also made me wonder what on earth I’ll be doing at the end of my degree, but I believe that’s idiosyncratic to my reading of it.
Ultimately I’d recommend this one to anyone that’s interested in doing, or has done anything in design to get a friendly reminder of why you are doing (or have done) what you are doing (or have done). Good stuff, and accessible on a few different levels.(less)
I was not aware of Kurt Vonnegut when he passed away last year. I hadn’t read a single book of his, and that situation remained until a few weeks ago...moreI was not aware of Kurt Vonnegut when he passed away last year. I hadn’t read a single book of his, and that situation remained until a few weeks ago when, after watching a documentary on another fallen hero, Hunter S. Thompson, I decided to buy some of the books I had intended to a long time ago and never did. So in went Catch-22, South of No North, The Cheese Monkeys, and Slaughterhouse-Five. And out I walked looking like a ‘cult classic’ wannabe late to the party.
Slaughterhouse-Five is the first of the four that I’ve read and I find that kind of sad, because now the others have such a high bar to flip towards that surely they’ll trip and stumble. But we’ll wait and see. In any case I, like just about every other person on the planet that has read Vonnegut it seems, found it wonderful. It’s told from the perspective of a man named Billy Pilgrim, who becomes ‘unstuck in time’ following an aeroplane crash in his late life. This leads to a narrative that jumps back and forth throughout a few major settings of his life: his brief experience as a chaplain’s aide in World War II, as a prisoner of war in a Dresden slaughterhouse (number five, giving its title to the book) during the famous firebombing, postwar with his fat, millionaire heiress wife, and as an elder man who spreads the word of his fatalist philosophy, developed as a result of his being kidnapped by an alien race.
As you may have guessed by that last item, there are a couple of science-fiction elements in the book, but not enough that it falls into the dreaded void that might have seen a lot of people ignore it out of their pig-minded refusal to read genre fiction. The literary mechanism of time travel can’t really be called science-fiction, as it there is no grand machine, and it is never known if it occurs only in Billy Pilgrim’s mind. The alien race that picks up Billy and helps him understand his time shifting is unavoidably going to be thought of as sci-fi, but they could just as easily have been a group of monks. So there’s really no reason to be a literature snob, there’s ideas like this in all genre fiction.
A major theme in the book is the concept of time and space as related to death. The aliens (Tralfamadorians) that help Billy (and display him in a zoo with a porno star, incidentally) can see in the fourth dimension, time, and therefore can visit any point of their life at any time. As a result of their unique sight, they believe that the body exists forever; when a body dies, it merely stops existing in that time and place, but continues to exist in other times and places where it was still alive. This fatalist worldview is something that Billy preaches later in life, which ends up amassing him a public profile that leads to his death at the hands of a revenge-loving fellow slaughterhouse refugee. The famous quote of ’so it goes’ is the standard response from the Tralfamadorians (and also the narrator) whenever death occurs.
Slaughterhouse-five has been called an anti-war book (in fact, the back cover claims it to be the most famous anti-war book every made, which I find hard to believe), but I think it is more of a comment on the human condition; the way that we operate in ways so perpendicular to what we know is what we want as a result of our modern environment. That it is mostly set in a warzone doesn’t really mean that it is anti-war, I think Vonnegut has used war as an extreme example of the silliness of humankind’s value system. Without sounding like a hippy, I’d recommend it to anyone who thinks that work is life, or that politics is life, or that religion is life. I found it brilliant as a piece of literature, brilliant as a story, and brilliant as a different view on the problem of modern life.(less)