Quick plot synopsis: Chip Kidd has designed more than 1,500 book jackets over 15 years and after touching so many books he decided to finally write his own. The result, The Cheese Monekys, is a novel set at a state university (coughPennStatecough) in the late 1950’s. Over the course of his first two semesters, the narrator (clearly a fictionalized version of Kidd himself) learns about a lot more than art in his classes. This is a traditional coming of age novel, and while it is predictable at times, there is a resonance here that makes the book worth reading.
My thoughts: This book reads like an art piece- it’s completely off the wall but totally accessible at the same time. As a current university student myself, I found that many of the struggles I have experienced in my college life were depicted fairly in this book. There are some wonderfully interesting characters and even though many operate off of stereotypes (crazy cat lady drawing teacher) there is a seed of truth there that maintains a feel of authenticity.
The book supposedly takes place in the 1950’s, but many of the questions asked make the novel feel much more like it was taking place in the 1970’s – it feels too bohemian and radical to fit the culture of art and America right after World War II. The book addresses Kidd’s philosophy of art, but it doesn’t feel forced or tedious and it asks some questions that are still pertinent today.
Overall, I have to say this is an odd duck of a novel. There are some just plain absurd moments where I looked at the book with a distinct “What. The. Firetruck.” sense. There are times when it is painfully obvious that this is Kidd’s first serious attempt at writing, various parts read like a high school creative writing essay. The last forty pages feel like they belong to a MUCH darker, more cynical novel. I was surprised at the dramatic shift in tone and couldn’t help but wonder if the end of the story was drastically changed in the editing process to make the book have a more significant “end” in an attempt to emulate great young adult novels like Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Outsiders.
I read this book in an afternoon, it’s a quick and easy read that asked several worthwhile questions – if coming of age novels is a genre you enjoy (it’s my favorite) then I recommend picking this up.