by Chip Kidd; New York, Scribner, 2008, 258 pages, $26
Dr. Feder is a psychiatrist for Behavioral Health Network, Concord, New Hampshire.
This is the second novel by Chip Kidd, a graphic artist turned author. The book describes the experiences of Happy during his first job as a graphic artist at an advertising firm in New Haven, Connecticut. This is a continuation of Kidd's first novel, The Cheese Monkeys, which recounts Happy's education at a state university. Kidd's training as a graphic artist is evident throughout the book, starting with its unique self-designed cover. Typefaces and layouts in the book frequently change to create dramatic effects or emphasis. There are even didactic discussions of various typeface. Kidd's literary style lacks depth and polish, but this is compensated for by his humor and originality. His descriptions and examinations of the book's characters are rather superficial, but he does explore some general questions of human behavior and values in interesting ways. A major theme of the book is the struggle between form and content, both in media ads and people's actions. The book is unusual, captivating, and quite funny.
So what is The Learners' relevance to psychiatry? This does not become apparent until almost half way through the book, when Happy becomes a participant in Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments. Milgram was an actual member of the Yale Department of Psychology during the era in which the novel is set, the early 1960s. Milgram became famous to many and infamous to some for his now classical studies of obedience in social situations. His experimental paradigm was to have a subject believe that he was a "teacher" in an experiment investigating the effects of punishment on learning. The "teacher" would remotely administer successively stronger electrical shocks to a "learner" in another room whenever the "learner" answered a memory test question incorrectly. The "learner" was in fact a confederate of the experimenter, and there were no actual electrical shocks delivered, although the "learner" would start vocally complaining and screaming as the experiment proceeded. If the "teacher" expressed a desire to end the experiment at any time, she or he was blandly told by the experimenter to continue. Although Milgram's "teacher" subjects were morally normal people, 65% of them did not refuse to continue shocking the "learner" until the study was terminated by the experimenter. Milgram interpreted this as evidence of the power of authority in social situations to get people to do things they would ordinarily be opposed to. Milgram saw this to some extent as a justification of Adolf Eichmann's claim that "I was only following orders."
In Kidd's book, Happy is one of the 65% of subjects who agrees to shock his "learner" to the maximum, eventually believing he has killed him. Happy is initially relieved when Milgram reveals the true nature of the experiment to him but then becomes burdened with suicidal guilt over his performance. Kidd's description of the Milgram experiment is notable for its accuracy and detailed attempt to portray the experience of the "teacher." Exactly what this has to do with the rest of the story and the world of graphic art is never made clear. He does imply that in the society that is one's job people may do things they would not do as individuals. This may extend to advertising, as a means to manipulate people's desires or values. Kidd's description of Happy's depression and suicidality is, unfortunately, the weakest, least believable, and least coherent part of the book. Kidd has much to learn about mental health before tackling such topics in any future endeavors.