06 May 2003
The Smart Type
Two new novels by graphic designers
Authors who are also graphic designers are acutely sensitive to the expressive possibility of printed language. You Shall Know Our Velocity (2002) is the second novel by Dave Eggers, who is also the editor, designer and publisher of McSweeney's, a literary journal renowned for the inventiveness of its design and typographical sophistication. The Cheese Monkeys (2002) is the first novel by one of the world's most talented book jacket designers, Chip Kidd. This shared perspective gives both works a distinctive rigour and 'page-presence'.
In Eggers' novel - let's call it Y.S.K.O.V. (as Eggers himself does, substituting one cryptic title for another) - two 27-year-old friends, Will and Hand, set off around the world with a mission to give away an unexpected windfall of about $40,000. Thwarted by the weather, airline timetables and unco-operative officials, the journey falls short of their ambitions. They make it to Senegal, Morocco and the Baltic states, but not to Siberia or Cairo, places to which their imagination is truly drawn. The comedy of two culturally displaced Americans and their deliberations over who 'deserves' their gifts is entertaining, but the travelogue is nagged by the furious subjectivity of Will, the narrator, increasingly dissatisfied as the novel progresses with the accomplishment of his absurd errand.
The Cheese Monkeys, 'a novel in two semesters', is narrated by a freshman Art major at a state university in the middle of America in the late 1950s. Isolated among philistine classmates and college staff, he encounters two enlightening figures whose approval it becomes vital to win. The first is another student, Himillsy Dodd, whose gamine appearance belies a precocious inclination to hard drinking, ruthless mockery of classmates and confident opinions about art. The freshman rises to the challenge she represents, beating her at several of her own games and confessing that making her laugh was 'the best grade I ever got'. The second mentor figure is Winter Sorbeck, tutor of Introduction to Graphic Design, outrageously - magnificently - arrogant and demanding.
When our narrator first hears Sorbeck's voice, the type changes face and size, signifying an epiphany. He finds graphic design as proposed by Sorbeck instantly compelling. It isn't just the means by which you give form to ideas, Sorbeck insists, 'Graphic design gives you ideas'. He sets his class a series of exercises in integrating form and content. After starting with 'choose a word and then design it with the typography and materials of your choice', the term ends with 'combine each of the assignments of the spring semester in order to fashion from them a pleasing whole'. 'Happy', as Sorbeck derisively calls the narrator, responds to this calling with his whole being.
But The Cheese Monkeys is more than an apology for the relatively obscure and technical practice of graphic design. The novel's unity of form and content, of text and object, style and substance, is extraordinarily tight. Every element of the book, as a physical object, is a bearer of messages, down to the conventional publisher's notes, which betray the author's voice. The pages are a pleasure to read, with large margins and perfectly set type. The prose, though elegant and rich enough with description, anecdote and banter, is startlingly economical, the dialogue reductive but intense. Whole emotional states are distilled to a single adjective: 'A short, annoyed, blond girl'; 'Bob Burkenstock (prematurely balding, Class of '59 Hotel Management, shrill)'; 'Misty: scandalised'.
The novel demonstrates one of Sorbeck's early lessons: 'Design is, literally, purposeful planning. Graphic design, then, is the form those plans will take.' It is easy to read The Cheese Monkeys as partly autobiographical - the pursuit of integrated form and meaning as Kidd's own raison d'être. He purposefully planned it, wrote it and designed it. But tidy and intractable it is not. The narrative takes a number of audacious and bizarre turns, including a mysterious, unearthly dénouement in the closing pages - but it is not over-designed.
Neither, unfortunately for the hapless Will, is Y.S.K.O.V. He explicitly craves purpose, a design to enact, invoking 'Order! Action! Reason! Purpose!' and 'the sureness of love'. He reiterates his envy of Winston Churchill: 'I want to have been given your mission. I want your place in world events, the centrality of it.' The creative acts of writing and design themselves provide momentary stability, form in chaos. Eggers is clearly riveted not only by the way language looks as print, but also by the way thought looks as language. The narrative is constantly distracted by figures of speech, innovative similes - 'The Gambia, a country stuck inside Senegal like a tumor' - and fresh coinages - 'eyeblue day', 'bone-quiet'. It swings between vivid psychological reporting, full of exclamation marks and questions, and epic, rhetorical cadences: 'We would oppose the turning of the planet and refuse the setting of the sun.' Passages of complex, expansive description are followed by expletives and inarticulate youth-speak. There are some marvellously concise summations, such as 'the man, squat and angry about the wrongness of his flesh, the things he's seen, all the air in the world'. And the book shows the designer's hand - illustrations inserted right into the text and an opening that begins on the outside cover and continues on the front endpapers.
But Will and Hand's grand design is interrupted by incidents, tangential encounters, the noise interference of memory and pain. When they think they've hit on the 'perfect' conceit for distribution - strapping cash to the back of Senegalese donkeys, for example - it dies in the execution. This failure infects the whole novel. Eggers' virtuosity as a writer seems to be deployed for its own sake. What is literary creation if not this? His novel asks this acutely, because the writing is so self-consciously brilliant while the story is so vain.
Two memorably unconfused characters make an appearance: an elderly expatriate Frenchwoman, once a resistance fighter and now living in Morocco, and a beautiful young Moroccan soothsayer who, in a dreamlike interlude in a hotel pool at midnight, delivers her idiosyncratic philosophy: 'The fourth world is present and available. It's this close. But it's different. It's passive. We are make [sic] action here. We come and then we create things that will happen. The fourth world is half thought, half actual. It is a staging ground.' She alludes to creativity as a state of autonomous grace. Will knows this and states it himself with the explicitness of a Winter Sorbeck: 'We had travelled 4,200 miles or whatever and thus were obliged to create something. We had to take the available materials and make something worthy.' Creativity has the power to redeem you from chaos. That power potentially doubles if you design your own book.
First published in Issue 75