The Cheese Monkeys. A Novel In Two Semesters is Chip Kidd’s first novel. Kidd, a graphic designer best noted for his design for the cover of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, published The Cheese Monkeys in 2001.
Set in the late-50’s, the novel focuses on the narrator’s first year of college at State U., split into two semesters. In the first semester, the narrator registers for an Art 101 course that lives down to his expectations. His perspective changes irrevocably when he meets Himillsy Dodd, a hard-drinking, acid-tongued misanthrope who stands out in the conservative late-'50s milieu. Dodd’s overly sophisticated demeanor immediately comes out as she attempts to educate the naive narrator by forcing him to attend art history classes and down multiple “slurp n’ burps”, her favorite drink.
In the second semester, the narrator’s obsession with Dodd leads him to signing up for a course in graphics design with her where they meet Winter Sorbeck, a Gary Cooper look alike who believes terrorizing the students is the best way to teach them. At one point, Sorbeck goes so far as to take his class to a stretch of highway near a state hospital for the criminally insane. Armed with only a piece of poster board and a marker, the students are forced to find a way home. Each car that passes without stopping is one letter grade off of the their project.
Two themes of the The Cheese Monkeys are the death of good and sight. In an unsettling section of the novel, Sorbeck terrorizes a student until she proclaims “good is dead”. At first, one might think that he means there is no good, but the theme Kidd is expressing is not that there is no good, but what was good, may no longer be good. He questions politics, the growth of industry, and general “improvements” to society as a whole. “That’s what’s so good about America”, declares Sorbeck, “’good’ is never good enough, no matter WHO you are”.
In Art 101, the narrator learns to see only what he is supposed to draw, the lines of an object. As he progresses under Sorbeck’s reign of terror, he learns to see things with a new light, to pick them apart and think about why they are the way they are. He learns to breath in objects until they become a part of them- until he truly sees them. In the novel’s most exciting passages, the author shows how his vaguely autobiographical hero sees the world in a new way, finding subtle beauty even in something as simple and disposable as a gum wrapper. With The Cheese Monkeys, Kidd playfully toys with readers' expectations, turning a snarky take on academic mores into a backward route to meaningful art, and justifying his profession in the process.