Monday, March 02, 2009

What I'm Reading: The Learners

Even though I teach literature and love books, it's been a while since I have actually read a novel that's not for use in school. I know that's sad, but it's my reality right now, simply because I either lack (a) the desire, (b) the time, or (c) the patience to read prose fiction of any length.

I used to read a couple of novels a week, and now that I only read a few book-length works of prose fiction a year, I wonder if it's because I'm getting older and less willing to put up with sustained mediocrity (How many novels are really better than all the ones I've already read? Very few!) or if the internet really has changed everything (My brain is built for internet speed now, for better or worse). I think it's probably both.

I spend most of my time reading comics not just because I love comics, though I do, but because they fit into the nooks and crannies of my busy life. They take the perfect amount of attention and time, and are easy to slip into the ten or fifteen minutes I have between doing other things.

Anyway, I did read a novel this week, and it doesn't even have anything to do with comics. Well, it's sort of tangentially related to comics, with the Charles Burns cover and the fact that it's written by Chip Kidd, a guy who has worked on plenty of comic art books.

But "The Learner" isn't ABOUT comics, and that's what counts. It's the sequel to "The Cheese Monkeys," one of my favorite novels ever -- well, at least in my Top 100 -- and although it's not quite as good as Kidd's first, it's pretty darn good.

It takes place in 1961, in an advertising agency, so my recent interest in "Mad Men" can't help but color my impression of this novel. Yet Kidd is interested in entirely different things, and his story explores the effect of the real-life Milgram experiment on his fictional protagonist. The Milgram experiment was that one where unwitting participants administered shocks to "learners" who failed to remember an answer. They were "unwitting" because they thought they were involved in a memory test, but they were actually involved in an Obedience to Authority test.

His involvement with the experiment shakes the narrator to the bone, and raises questions about perception and reality that tie into the notion of advertising.

Kidd also explores the relationship between Form and Content, explicitly, both within the narrative and in some metafictional digressions between chapters.

Even though "The Learners" stumbles at the end, and doesn't quite live up to the quality of "The Cheese Monkeys" -- which, if I recall, also had some problems in the final section -- it was nice to read a novel again.

I'll let Kidd close this post by speaking for himself, on the notion of Form and Content:

What are YOU reading?


Andy G said...

Thomas Pynchon's Vineland. So I can see where Matt Fraction gets his ideas from.

Kris Krause said...

I've been wanting to read "The Cheese Monkeys" for some time, but I have so many books I own and still haven't read.

I'm still doing my slow read over of Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow," (two Pynchons in a row!) and I'm committing the big no, no of reading Watchmen this week before the movie comes out because it's been a long time since I last read Watchmen and I'd like to be able to process what was changed as I watch with the expectation that the movie is not going to match the written work and that I'm just fine with that.

Molly said...

Oh wow, I loved The Cheese Monkeys, and its random Berkshire Mall reference. But yeah, it did get incredibly bizarre near the end. I'll have to read this book, especially because I have a strange fondness for ethically questionable psychological experiments like the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment.

Chad Nevett said...

Finished rereading The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler and have moved on to Fairwell, My Lovely, which is my favourite of his books. ("Pearls are a Nuisance" is my favourite Chandler short story.)

Also, rereading Grant Morrison's second year on Batman while writing a loooooooong post on the subject. Today, finished writing about "The Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul," so I read the next four issues and need to write about them before jumping into "Batman R.I.P."

Timothy Callahan said...

Molly -- I actually asked Chip Kidd about that Berkshire Mall reference, and he said it's a mall near Allentown, PA.