Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semestersby Chip Kidd
After 15 years of designing more than 1,500 book jackets at Knopf for such authors as Anne Rice and Michael Chrichton, Kidd has crafted an affecting an entertaining novel set at a state university in the late 1950s that is both slap-happily funny and heartbreakingly sad. The Cheese Monkeys is a college novel that takes place over a tightly written two semesters.
After 15 years of designing more than 1,500 book jackets at Knopf for such authors as Anne Rice and Michael Chrichton, Kidd has crafted an affecting an entertaining novel set at a state university in the late 1950s that is both slap-happily funny and heartbreakingly sad. The Cheese Monkeys is a college novel that takes place over a tightly written two semesters. The book is set in the late 1950s at State U, where the young narrator, has decided to major in art, much to his parents’ dismay. It is an autobiographical, coming-of-age novel which tells universally appealing stories of maturity, finding a calling in life, and being inspired by a loving, demanding, and highly eccentric teacher.
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Part Two, Chapter One: ART 127. INTRODUCTION TO COMMERCIAL ART.
Room 207, Baxter Bldg.
(formerly Wexler Science Hall)
DESCR: A fundamental exploration of the applied arts.
I got there at quarter past two. A dozen or so kids dotted the benches and floor in the hall facing the classroom -- I recognized Treat Dempsey and two other guys from North Halls. Himillsy was seated, her shiny black helmet of hair and raccoon mascara glowering over a sundress she'd made in Textiles 202. The fabric was covered with a pattern of oranges and bananas that would have seemed perfectly benign on anyone else. She was talking to a very tall boyish man with terrible skin. The door to 207 wasn't locked, but a sign, ink on horizontal notebook paper, was taped to it:
Formerly mislabeled Introduction to Commercial Art ENTER THE CLASSROOM AT EXACTLY
2:25 P.M. -- WS
"I think you should go in."
Hims was smirking, sunbeam bright. I recognized the look and prepared myself -- it was the sort of smile that made you check your fly. Suddenly she was nudging me to the door, giddy with girlish urgency -- I was Rin Tin Tin and she lay pinned under a tree. "Go on, hurry! Don't think about me! Run! Save yourself!"
I resisted, with success. "Rage before beauty..." I held one arm to my chest and extended the other towards the door. She returned a howl of delighted disapproval and slid over to make space for me on the bench.
"This is Mike," she gestured vaguely to the beanpole, who,now that I was seated, seemed even longer and lankier. Mike Crenck was ancient -- maybe even thirty. As he nodded my way and made a small noise, the expression on his face made me want to say "Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt you." His hair was sandy colored, in a shade which reminded you that sand was also dirt.
"What are y'all waiting for?" Maybelle was at the far end of the hallway, lugging her burden of paints, pencils, rulers, and drawing tools -- charging towards us with epic resolve. Only Mabes could turn walking down the hall into Lee's campaign at Gettysburg.
"For you. Go on in." Mills was swinging her legs.
Maybelle ignored her and read the sign. "Well. Miss Sorbeck is very specific, isn't she?"
"Probably moonlights as a Swiss cuckoo," said Hims, as she tortured a paper clip.
I sighed and leaned against the wall. What a bore this was going to be, like every other class at State. At least I talked Mills into taking it. She'd liven it up.
At twenty-five after, we made our listless way into 207 and found seats. A minute or two of silence.
Then, from behind us:
"That was lousy. Do it again."
It is beyond my powers to tell you what that voice really sounded like. But I can tell you what it did. I can say it pinned me like a Monarch to its specimen box and made me squint. It turned the air into a hot solid. Wait -- that's not good enough -- it...was a wave you thought you could ride, until you did, and came up bloody. I can tell you it was the sound of Ultimate Discontent -- the voice that, after a long life of committing horrible crimes, you could expect to hear just after you died.
I turned, opened my eyes.
There, leaning against the back wall, was Gary Cooper's fraternal twin (High Noon-era) in a white dress shirt and loosened rep tie, gray flannel trousers, and a pipe driven into his clenched teeth.
But I bet Gary never forgave him because between the two this guy got all the looks -- which were now on the other side of Stellar -- but not far. He was big. Not fat, not at all. Big. Like a cliff you were just pushed from.
To look at him was to disappoint him.
"I said. Do it. Again."
And boy, did we ever.
We rose with a collective jolt, filed out into the hallway, and exchanged puzzled glances. What to do next?
"There must be some mistake," offered Maybelle. "He must think we're here for something else. Maybe he's not the right teacher at all. Once at Miss Cress's I spent an entire term in Pillows when I was supposed to be in Napkins. I almost didn't graduate. It was just crazy."
Treat and the two he came with were heading down the hall for the stairwell. I called to him.
"Where're you guys going?"
He turned. "To see if we can still audit Psych One-ten." Then he shot a wild-eyed face to the door of 207 and they were gone.
Hims was jubilant -- fortified by the weirdness and confusion. "Love it! Kicked out already and we didn't even do anything. Let's go back in!"
"But we did it wrong somehow last time." Maybelle bit her lip. "What did he mean?"
"He means do it with some style," said Mills. "Go in like...oh...Isadora Duncan."
"Jesus. Agnes de Mille, then."
"I don't -- "
"Like a dancer in Oklahoma. Go ahead. Kick up your heels. He'll love it. We'll be right behind you."
"Are you sure?" She pondered it. "I loved Oklahoma, saw it three times. They had such spirit, those poor people. Do you think...?"
"Absolutely. He wants theater. I'm going to be Blind Pew from Treasure Island. I'll use my ruler as a tapping stick. Be fun!" She turned to me. "What are you going to be?"
In eternally horrified thrall to you, alas. "I'm still deciding." Everyone else had started to go back in, some with a little more enthusiasm than before. Maybelle bounded into the room, clicked her heels, and shouted, "Yeeeehah!!"
Sorbeck was stone-faced. Himillsy followed her up and gave him a very desperate, apologetic glance. I was next, and before I sat down, something came over me and I pivoted, clicked my heels together, and did a slow, courtly bow.
Arms crossed. Didn't move.
Once we were all reseated, he went to the front of the room and started bobbing his head at each of us. Then,
"Shit. Only three went AWOL?"
Mike raised his hand and said in a voice that sounded like Bing Crosby before puberty. "I, I think so."
And then, bam! The first of his magical transformations: now a human being -- almost friendly. "I must be losing my touch." He smiled and turned the air into a gas again and became the most beguiling person on earth. "Usually it's at least five. I'll have to work on that. You see, there's still eighteen people here. The class works better with twelve, best with fewer. Nine or ten is ideal. Of course, the Cookie Cutters in the front office of this Idiot Factory won't allow me to limit it to that, but I'm not worried. I'll whittle you down. No doubts."
I didn't like the sound of that.
"Before we go on, I should state, it's a fact: Nothing worth knowing can ever be taught in a classroom."
No one stirred.
"Well. Nobody fell for that. Now. Let's see what we've got." He walked across the front of the room, and I was reminded of a shark I once saw during a high school field trip -- it was turning in a tank of cloudy water, and I just kept staring at it, thinking, "How can something so huge and bulky move with such efficient, liquid ease?" Its fin broke the surface and bore down -- Christ -- on me.
"Son, what is the name of this class?"
His face: the Arrow shirt man after some hard, hard years.
Survivalist reflexes almost made me shriek "Introduction to Commercial Art!" Almost. At the last second I remembered the sign. I cleared my throat. "Introduction to Graphic Desi -- "
"Right!!" God. "Very good. You can stay. For now." Maybelle was next. "Honey, can you tell me what Graphic Design is?"
She thought for a moment. "No. I'm afraid not," all eager smiles. "That's why I'm here, I suppose."
He seemed to accept that. "All right. Fair enough, you're in."
Back to Mike. Sorbeck folded his arms and leaned down on the table. "What does the world look like?"
"Er, I don't think I understand the question."
"Now, that is a problem." He stood up and reloaded his pipe. "That is a problem.
"Everyone, understand: When you walk through that door you become a graphic designer. Whether or not you stay one after you leave is up to you, but I'd recommend you wear the mantle full time, all semester. We'll be spending the next weeks attempting to figure out what this means -- to be a designer, graphic or otherwise.
"Now who would like to take a little eye test? You two." He gestured to Himillsy and the girl next to her -- a real Margaret-from-Dennis-the-Menace type, with freckles and rust-colored ringlets propped up by two pink barrettes shaped like butterflies. "Up to the front of the room please, and face the class." Hims rolled her eyes as she passed me.
Then he said, serious as a cancer: "Okay, I want you ladies to close your eyes. NO peeking or out the door with you both. I'm watching. Understand?" They did as they were told and nodded. "Alright, we'll start with the pigtails. Sweetheart?"
"Yes?" said Margaret.
"What color is the floor?"
"Uh." She started to look down, and checked herself. Lids clenched tight. "I really, couldn't say for sure."
"I see. How about the walls?"
"Oh. I. Didn't get a good look at them. Green?"
"Hmm. How many windows are in this room?"
"Gee. I...didn't count."
"Describe the dress of the girl next to you."
"Uh, orange." Very fidgety.
"My shoes. What color?"
Hims had her hands clasped behind her through all of this, her tiny weight on her left leg. Smiling. Head tilted to the ceiling. Bored, bored, bored.
"Pigtails, we have to teach you how to see. Either that or get you a tapping stick and a dog with a metal handle and a lot of patience." Titters in the room. Then, quite grave: "You are a designer. You have to eat the world with your eyes. You must look at everything as if you're going to die in the next five minutes, because in the relative scheme of things, you are. You can't miss a trick. Now, you, girly." He meant Himillsy. "In the fruit dress. What colo -- "
"The floor, originally I suppose, was white. As one would like to imagine that slush in the gutter was once new-fallen snow. Linoleum. Of the grade...usually found in Sears just before they remodeled. Scuffed now, beyond redemption." She smirked slightly, into the dark.
"Well well well." His interest was finally sparked -- the badger at the rabbit hole. "Go on."
"The walls are the shade of caked snot."
He said nothing.
"Cinder block. There are either four windows or eight, depending on whether you count them in sections. Probably last washed during the Roosevelt administration. Teddy." She was off and running -- arms up into space. "I'm wearing my own stunning creation -- I call it 'Fruit Salad Surgery.' My shoes are boys' size four patent black leather Buster Browns with kid straps." She threw her hands crazily to the right. "Miss Nowhere is wearing a thigh-waisted fatigue tent-dress she probably made in her spare time to save money for hair dye."
Margaret's eyes snapped open.
" -- speaking of which, someone might tell her that two killer moths the color of my tongue are attacking her head as I speak."
"And you, sir, since you asked, are shod in a pair of groaning black ox-bloods that really ought to be thrown away. You obviously aren't married, or Mrs. Sorbeck would have returned them apologetically to the beast they were ripped from, when you weren't looking, years ago."
He chuckled. "Oh, she tried. I'm always looking. And?"
"I'm stuffed." She opened her lids. "My eyeballs are ready to burp their heads off." She curtsied and headed for her seat. Margaret followed in a slump. I pictured those wavy cartoon heat lines rising from her head, and almost started to clap.
Sorbeck was as amused as I ever would see him. Sober, anyway.
"You're a pip, Miss Molecule."
She basked in the praise.
"Kiddies, you all should have been able to do that. Sans, I would hope," he threw a second's dismissive glance at Himillsy, "the undergraduate humor."
Hims's face broke and she made her eyes dark slits. She didn't like that. Not at all.
"The Cookie Cutters can't think about anything beyond selling cookies, so they would have you believe this class is the Introduction to Commercial Art. It is not. Should that give you cause to leave this room, do so now -- without the threat of being scorned, or having to think."
Nobody did. Leave, I mean.
"But I've been put in charge of the store here, and I say it's Introduction to Graphic Design. The difference is as crucial as it is enormous -- as important as the difference between pre- and postwar America. Uncle Sam...is Commercial Art. The American Flag is Graphic Design. Commercial Art tries to make you buy things. Graphic Design gives you ideas. One natters on and on, the other actually has something to say. They use the same tools -- words, pictures, colors. The difference, as you'll be seeing, and as you'll be showing me, is how." He bowed his head and paused, as if to take on a new load of thoughts. Then he paced, slowly, up and down the right side of the room.
"You're lucky. I envy you -- this is an interesting time for Graphic Design. Even though it's existed since the dawn of man, it's also in its infancy -- not even a name for it until 1928, when a book designer named William Addison Dwiggins got sick of the term 'Graphic Arts' and changed it -- in print, naturally. And he was right. It's not Art. And Art is not Design, though it used to be." He stopped, relit his pipe. Drew it in.
"Design is, literally, purposeful planning. Graphic Design, then, is the form those plans will take."
"A bazillion years ago, some poor son of a bitch Cro-Magnon scratched a drawing of a buffalo onto the wall of his cave. He didn't do it because his muse had called to him, or to explore the texture of bauxite, or to start the neoprimitive-expressionist movement. He did it because he killed a goddamn buffalo and he wanted someone else to know about it, after he was gone. He had a specific, definable purpose for making a piece of visual information. The first one." He puffed. "Whether it's been up or downhill from there is a matter of debate for another time, but the truth is Art and Design only finally parted ways in the nineteenth century, with the introduction of photography. Now -- Ssmile! -- Zogg can take a picture of his Buffalo and save all those tedious drafting skills for...well, something else."
Sorbeck pulled a chair up to the front, sat, and propped his legs up on a desk, leaning back, hands behind his head.
"Which is no small matter. You see, photography opened up quite a little Pandora's box, kiddies. Do you have any idea?" A quick scan of the room made it clear we didn't. "Once we no longer had to depend on drawing and painting to record our existence -- once they became an option -- they mutated...into a form of expression. And Art for its own sake, God help us, was born.
"But Graphic Design for its own sake will never happen, because the concept cancels itself out -- a poster about nothing other than itself is not Graphic Design, it's..." He pumped his fist rapidly up and down over his lap and started breathing in spasms. "...makin' ART."
"Not that Design can't have...a look, a style -- in fact it has to, even if the style is 'no style' -- but by definition, Design must always be in service to solving a problem, or it's not Design. I will not, so help me, ever attempt to define what Art is. But I know what it no longer is, and that's Graphic Design.
"Now, as for Commercial Art, I could be crass and say the term is both repetitive and redundant, but that's too easy. Better to say the term is too limiting and too humiliating. I mean, do you really want to be a Commercial Artist?" He somehow made his face ugly with those last two words, for just a second, then stood. Summing up his case.
"Eight notes in the scale: you can write either 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' or The Marriage of Figaro.
"Twenty-six letters: Marjorie Morningstar or Ulysses.
"The man-made world means exactly that. There isn't an inch of it that doesn't have to be dealt with, figured out, executed. And it's waiting for you to decide what it's going to look like. Of course that's not true, but for this class you have to believe it.
"So. Is it caked snot?
"Or five coats of lacquered enamel?"
We didn't dare make a peep. I was exhausted just listening.
"Alright. Here's your first assignment..."
"I wish I had a picture of him. Then my word could be 'bastard.' Problem solved." Himillsy was burrowing through her purse, her last Camel hanging from her mouth for dear life. "Bloody matches..."
For our first formal Graphic Design critique we had to select a word and design it, on an eleven-by-fourteen-inch piece of paper. The idea was to make it look appropriate to what it said. Sounds simple enough, until you try it -- everything you think of is instant cliché. Himillsy and I met at Zingorelli's Pizza -- their tomato-garlic strombolis could set off Vesuvius -- the night before it was due, to commiserate.
"How about the word 'red,' in red?" I asked.
"Too easy. He'll hate it. There they are..." Breath a Sicilian stink bomb, she lit her smoke and motioned for her sixth Coke. "Plus like he said -- it's too repetitive. He's looking for more."
A truck pulled up and parked on the curb outside the window next to our booth. It was huge. Lost in thought, I found myself trying to read the lettering on the side, but only part of it was in view, and all I could make out, just barely, was the word 'big.' Hmm. Now there was an idea.
Was this Design? Taking the information on the side of that truck, and seeing not what it is, but what could be made of it? Learning from it?
I decided yes. It was that moment -- when the mind, instead of obsessively pacing the prison of its own puzzlement, suddenly, instinctively, deliriously, discovers a way to make wings out of wax and fly the maze.
"What if the word was 'big'..." I started, "but you just showed a white piece of paper?"
She waited for me to explain. I said, "Because it's so big, you can't see it all."
She took a drag. "Interesting, but something about it...isn't right." Sent smoke to the ceiling. "I wouldn't if I were you." Dissmissal Herself.
Ouch. Moment: RIP. "Yeah, I guess. What's everybody else doing?"
A foreign concept. "What? Who cares?" Himillsy's camaraderie was often cut with a sense of narcissism that was scarcely less than monstrous.
"That one guy, Mike," I said, "he's been working on it for two nights, in the Belly." (The Visual Arts building's basement workroom, where you went when you really needed to spread out. When you needed surfaces.) I already suspected that Mike was going to be one of those humble show-off types who worked harder than everybody else on each project and became teacher's pet. Annoying.
"Pizza Face?" she sniffed. "Bully for him. Vote him Class Prez."
"Maybe I should try a noun. What are you going to do?"
"Oh I don't know. I'll do what I always do." She drained her glass, stubbed out her Camel's tail. We got up to leave. "I'll think of something at the last minute. Drop you?"
Today we are going to talk about Left to Right. If I thought that I could say, "Things go from left to right," and all of you would grasp the weight of the situation then I would just say it and that would be that and we could just go home for today because, really, that's enough. No, too much for one day, actually. The best way would be to say, "Things go from left" on Tuesday, let it sink in, and then say "to right" on Thursday. And you know how you'd picture it? You'd picture Tuesday on the left, and Thursday on the right, and we'd be all set. In fact, why the hell didn't I do that? Damn. Too late. Anyway, that would assume this circumstance doesn't require some explanation, and as I survey this room, it's clear to me it does.
Look. Suppose you were a general in battle someplace and you got wind the enemy was plotting to invade your territory. If you knew exactly ahead of time where the sonsabitches were going to land and strike, you'd have the advantage, right? Well, that's it. You, you all have the advantage. The page, the poster, the surface you are working on -- THAT'S your territory, and they are going to invade. Fine, let them. That's what you want anyway. But be ready. They are coming in from the left. Always, always always, always!! This, as you would imagine, can be extremely useful to know. For example, if the director of a play wants to give more importance to one character than the others, where do you think he's going to place him on stage? See? You invisibly assign a hierarchy of importance and meaning to the elements you work with by deciding where they go on the page.
We are the Western world. We read, see, think. Left. To. Right. We can't help it. You have few givens in this life, in this class. That is one of them. Use it.
Copyright © 2001 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Meet the Author
Chip Kidd was born in Reading, PA in 1964. He lives in New York City and Stonington, CT.
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