Reflections: The Learners

I was recently reminded just how many ways there are to enjoy fiction. I am a person who holds strong beliefs about what makes a novel a pleasant and worthwhile read. Judged by my code, Chip Kidd's The Learners would not have been at the top of the class. And yet.

I have rarely laughed so hard and so loud in my adult life--and in public too. No social inhibitions could forestall the audible glee of consuming the verbal set pieces and well-written, in-character word play which spill off these pages. To give you just a taste, here is a conversation that introduces to the reader a washed out senior copywriter with whom the narrator works at a New Haven advertising agency:

"Sketch, in a private moment once at Saluzo's after work and feeling a couple thrown back, was..succinct: 'I've always thought of him as a well-wiped asshole.' I had to agree--he certainly was hygienic. Whatever the shambles of his life, there wasn't a hair out of place. Tip even claimed he once caught him in the men's room of the Quinnipiac Club combing his head with a salad fork after a high wind on the croquet lawn blew his comb over to the wrong side. Square of jaw and high of forehead, he looked like an amalgam of Dag Hammarskjold and an Easter Island monolith" (43).

The use of the word 'asshole' as a visual rather than characterological descriptor strikes me as genius. We don't do that. Once the reader had conquered this first dissonance, she must then immediately face another: now that we've turned insult to image, our mental picture must be unmoored from its standard associations--waste, dirtiness. In its place we are asked to understand the clean asshole as somehow cleaner than, say, a freshly cleaned suit.The narrator insists that you follow his lead in morphing the signified, but then, to reward you for good work, he leaves you to the enjoyment of an uncomplicated slapstick moment. We recline on this juvenile humor just long enough to remind ourselves how the pleasure is only superficial and then, wham, to a brain teasing (and absurd) mental image that requires good historical memory (or access to research resources); the Swedish diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize recipient collides with Moai. It's like a hip hop class for your brain.

The above is a small sample of the level of vivid and cheeky description that simultaneously conveys what something looks like and how the narrator feels about it. Perhaps the most artful aspect of this style is its inconsistency: if the whole novel read like this the individual gems would be lost without contrast among their peers. Kidd husbands his comic moments so that each one really zings.

And yet. The novel does leave something to desire; it could almost be described by that great insult of cruisers everywhere: all show, no go. The plot is minimal, the angst that should inhabit that plot somehow mismanaged, and there are ineffective meta-literary insertions that don't add much to the experience--although the last one really carries a significant narrative burden. The Learners has a privileged place on the shelf notwithstanding. Call it beach reading for the unself-consciously geeky.