Chip Kidd’s quirky 1960’s office comedy set in New Haven, Connecticut, entertains in fits and starts. So do its characters. The Learners is a comic darkly.
Happy is a recent college graduate desperate to work at his favorite professor’s advertising agency as a graphic artist. The misfit offices of Spear, Rakoff and Ware seem to come from someone’s evil Disneyesque nightmare, but Kidd leads us through them, introducing everybody so it’s slightly less frightening.
Happy gets his “dream job” and works for Sketchy Spear, who is at once and continually apologetic. Mildred “Mimi” Rakoff hides up in her office doing God-knows-what to her dog, but we see enough to creep us out. Tip Skikne, another graphic designer, gets most of the great lines.
Happy’s object of desire outside the office is one Himillsy Dodd, who by her dialog could have been Tip Skikne’s sister. Himillsy is odd but quick-witted, and we don’t get enough of her. It is Happy’s obsession with her that leads him to answer an ad of his own design for a science research group at nearby Yale. This adventure turns out to be the infamous Milgram experiments where the test subjects are “teachers” who must zap “learners” with electric jolts in an effort to prove how far a person will go under the influence of authority.
Happy sees much of the world through font choices and images. Kidd distances Happy, and therefore the story, from the reader by unloading a full description of him at the beginning, rather than letting us get to know him organically as the story unfolds. The other characters are wonderfully absurd, exaggerated and funny, but they are not fully developed, particularly the women, perhaps because the men are just given more ink time. Of course, with some characters, like secretary Miss Preech and client representative Dick Stankey, character development may not be necessary – the author is just having fun.
The Learners spends a great deal of time at the office, where we are exposed to many facets of the advertising industry and graphic design. Fellow industry members may appreciate it, but the rest of us may feel a bit alienated when Happy slows us down with typeface comparisons (Baskerville vs. Bodoni), or other artistic minutiae. When the story is interrupted with little monologues from Form and Content, we come to screeching halts. While these tiny offenses are brief, their frequency prevents solid long-term engagement preventing a smooth flow.
This choppiness works well within the confines of the dialog. In fact, it helps define two characters in particular: Tip and Himillsy. They seem to leap off the page when they speak. Their offbeat dialog is hilarious and harbors the more engaging moments in the book, but that same choppiness doesn’t work as well at the higher level of the novel as a whole.
One could argue that Kidd’s writing style is merely unconventional and that it fits well with the story and characters, which may be true. Perhaps the reader must decide if he is in the mood for a literary ride with abrupt pit stops jumping on and off the freeway so unexpectedly. Or would he prefer something more normal?