#4: The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd

The fiction as memoir; fiction based on real life experiences; or fiction with a few things thrown in that maybe really happened in real life genre…  Just enough to trip you up into thinking that this must be how it happened.

The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters is a manic race through the narrator’s introduction to art classes in college.  Parts felt very much like a memoir and it was clear that Kidd was drawing (no pun intended) on his college experiences.  I related to the first few days of chaos at college and the almost instant panic that you’ve made a terribly bad decision.

Our narrator, let’s keep his professor’s name for him and call him Happy, creeps into his first art class and soon meets the insanity driven hurricane that is Himillsy Dodd.  The book suddenly becomes her book, or at least that’s what she wants you to think.

Hims doesn’t so much as take Hap under her wing as she drags him in bemused terror and adoration off the edge of a cliff, making sure they crack their heads as many times as possible on the way down.  She seems to have everything and nothing figured out and he is at times pathetically desperate to please her.   It’s possible he would have continued to trail after her until she graduated and left him groggy on the side of the road.

But then second semester starts and they meet Professor Winter Sorbeck.  Winter is just as crazy/brilliant/destructive as Hims, but they are going in opposite directions.  Hap finds himself between the two, struggling to learn everything he can from both without giving in to either.

Getting back to Hims taking over Hap’s book…  Early on I thought this was going to be another coming of age, finding yourself at college story.   Hims shows up to show Hap a way into The Real World and I figured he’d decide for himself what was true.  But then I decided that he was simply along to record the path of Hims as she ran and screamed and flung herself through college, trying to take as much of it down with her as possible.

It wasn’t until the very end of the book that Hap decides this is his story and when he shows up… holy shit.  Seriously.  I said it out loud.  I read a line three or four times, my eyes jumped back a few paragraphs, I came back to it and wow…  Hap starts to appear a bit before this and my reaction was “Oh.  Well… this is interesting” but it is nothing compared to the holy shit moment.

When I finished the book I immediately wished I was in a book club so we could all sit in someone’s living room to try to figure out what in the hell just happened.  I popped over to Good Reads to see what people had written and man, were they pissed.

Many felt like they had been tricked and they weren’t sure if they were furious or just angry but willing to forgive because of the first 200+ pages.

Me?  I think I’m delighted, even though I’m still not sure what happened after the last sentence.  I detest books with endings that are wrapped up in pretty packages with giant bows and everything is perfect and no one’s feelings were hurt and here’s a box of candy and a picture of a puppy and let’s hold hands and talk about our favorite ice cream flavors.  The Cheese Monkeys is not that type of book.   It leaves a lot open and yet it did shut a few doors.  Or at least it almost shuts them and lets you decide if Hap is going to kick them closed the next time he walks by.

The writing is wonderful.  I know people complain that Kidd tries too hard or is too clever or cute in places, but I loved it.  There are a few descriptions where I wanted to high five the book because I bet Kidd high fived himself when he finished.  The first person confessional narrative lends to the memoir feeling and there a few moments where you feel like Hap is sitting at a desk somewhere much later in his life, pausing to remember what this moment felt like and how to get the words down just right.   He does a great job with the moments of pure emotion and when Hap is in a haze, I felt like I was staggering through the sentences along with him.

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