Stanley Donwood has been referred to as the sixth member of Radiohead, having created all their album artwork over the past 20 years. An accomplished artist, he is also a writer of short stories, and this is the first time a collection of his work has been produced by
a major publisher.
In Donwood’s world there are only two kinds of stories: dreams and nightmares. Horror unfolds in bleak urban settings: in supermarkets, flats and small bars. Demons, aliens and Aztecs are always waiting just offstage, preparing to invade. His subject is the dark absurdity of modern life; his stories don’t so much give a nod to Kafka as a bow.
Each story – and many are so short they would fit on a tombstone – is a truncated moment, and all are told in first person by a narrator who is racked by failure or fear, impotence or indecision. It’s very British, and very funny. Donwood’s comedy is a smile wrung out like a towel, twisted and dry.
All these stories have already been published in different forms (on his blog and in small publications) over the past 20 years, but what makes the book succeed as a collection is its structure, the invisible governing order.
It’s divided into four parts. The first quarter contains very short stories, the kind of flash fiction that starts in the middle and stops suddenly a paragraph or two later. The effect of reading such page-length pieces in quick succession is staccato and jolting, and after several pages the rhythm becomes firing-squad tedious.
But upon reaching the second section, “Phlegm”, where the stories open up into several pages in length, it all makes sense. I discovered retrospectively that the flash fiction had been piano scales; all this time I was in training, being readied for symphonies.
The stories “Wage Packet” and “My Giro” are works of surreal genius. They take ideas that have been tinkered with earlier and build them into weird and satisfying (and sometimes gory) conclusions. And from hereon in, the book is a joy. The further you read, the less jarring the flash fiction is (and it returns often during the second half). Donwood has taught you how to read Donwood.
With Humor, long-time fans will feel vindicated in their adoration of him. New readers will discover a master of the craft. BB
Faber, 192pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 6, 2014 as "Stanley Donwood, Humor ". Subscribe here.