I'd prefer to spread out the recs more, but these two have to be viewed as a couple.
DEAR rec: The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd This novel, in 2004 (late on the uptake, I know), snapped me back into the world of contemporary fiction. I had literally grown disgusted with all of the recs people tossed at me, since they were always more of the same thing that I didn't like the first time. The Cheese Monkeys was different. Very different. Concerning an anonymous (known only as Happy)'s first year at a state school studying art, Chip Kidd created one of the most believable artist communities I've ever seen captured in literature.
I didn't personally know anyone quite like the characters, but I knew their types from theater and how they couldn't just be defined as one dimensional characters. I was also a little too familiar with the unconventional approach teacher with crazy assignments.
The beauty of Kidd's first novel is how he managed to simultaneously crank up the absurdity level and boost the character development in an "Isn't art wacky?" novel. It works. It's funny. It's touching. It's downright confusing because, like visual art, Kidd refused to stand next to his work and say "This really means this."
A new edition was released by Harper Perrenial in anticipation of Kidd's second novel. It features a great passage all about Maybelle that was cut from the original printing of the novel since everyone involved (allegedly) thought the book should have been 300 pages of the Winter Sorbeck show.
Whereas if I had to choose one weak point of the book, it would be how Happy's memories of his first year at school are so defined by one class. Get the new edition, read it through. The new passage is an addendum at the back of the novel, specifying where it goes in the story.
Contemporary Rec: The Learners by Chip Kidd I'm not going to lie. I was shocked that Chip Kidd wrote a sequel to The Cheese Monkeys. I even refused to buy it on sight in the bookstore like I swore I would for any subsequent Kidd novel on principle. Why mess with a modern classic?
I'll admit that I'm an idiot. The book is fantastic. Even better than The Cheese Monkeys on writing alone. The Learners is a very different beast. If you thought The Cheese Monkeys used dark humor, then The Learners can only be called outer space humor: dry and darker than anything you've ever imagined.
It's much more serious, surrounding Happy's decision to apply for a job with the very same advertising firm his professor Winter Sorbeck worked at. The novel works. The characters are great, and the subtle nods to advertising techniques and famous campaigns are never overbearing. It's a coming of age novel without steeping in cliche. It's the physical continuation of Happy's story after college, though the point is to show how Happy grew. And with growth comes genuine emotion. Get the tissues ready, you're probably going to need them.
Fair warning. I can't do it justice. Read it. It's hard to find in some of the larger chains right now, though the online presence is still strong. Surprisingly, my local library had a copy of this but still refuses to pick up The Cheese Monkeys. If you're not sold, your library would probably have the hard cover The Learners as well.
Labels: contemporary rec, DEAR rec