These are very, very short stories, and not about the funny kind of humour, but the humours of the body: Sanguine, Phlegm, Choler, Melancholy. Stanley Donwood has serious demons, an incredible creative imagination, a harrowing reality.
Some a paragraph long, some a few pages, these stories are told in a first-person present tense, maybe all by the same subject, maybe not, maybe it doesn’t matter. In this story they make a recipe for happiness; in that one they are kidnapped by an ageing Count Dracula. In that one they have a new job; in this one driving fast to Brighton to meet their lover. And here, they are convincing the demon that has just jumped through their kitchen window that they have no soul to take, because it is actually tomorrow and they die tonight.
Stanley Donwood is known as the fifth member of Radiohead, having created all the album art for them. A misleadingly humourous quote from Thom Yorke, “middle-aged father of two” adorns the back: “The publisher of this book wishes me to vouch for the writer of this book….in order to utilise whatever celebrity kudos the writer of this quote, i.e. me, has left in order to advance the sales of this book.”. Donwood’s introduction speaks of a serial reoccurring nightmare, the demons entering his daily life and his process of expunging them. From there, we are prepared for the disturbing acceptance of this hyper world, where there is seepage between what we think we know and the world that Donwood knows.
There is a viscousness, a concern with the physicality and the fluids of the body. How to get close to another; how to run away from the demons. In the short sentences, there is a factual reality to the bodily-ness of the words. The tone is disconnected, unconcerned with reaction or emotion. Even retelling feeling, there is rarely real feeling there. There is beautiful language, evocative and sharp, but rarely emotion behind it:
“Soon I can detect by the smell of linseed oil alone the presence of a cricket-bat-wielding acquaintance in the bathroom. Everything is enhanced. Colours are richer, noises are louder. I awaken to the pattern of life, the weight of deed. // Eventually my heightened awareness evolves into a vividly focused paranoia. I can only retreat…and wait, slowly, for a death of my own choosing.”
It’s unnerving, this tone, this brutal acceptance and communication of the story. The language is sometimes haunting, the message harsh. Close to the end, the story “Telegraph” is probably one of the saddest stories I have ever read: “The gap between you and me…That was how you could see what the objects really looked like.” She was the shape of “billowing wheat or sad violin music or a quiet discussion in the coat room at a party…”, his shape is confused, perhaps the “silhouette of a murderer…”. And “Our shapes, together? The gap between them was bigger every day.”.
In “Condiment”, they become a wildly successful chef thanks to the nuanced seasoning of their dishes. It opens with:
“So one day I began collecting: I urinated into a large jar. I masturbated and scooped my ejaculate into a second jar. I took a knife from the drawer and made an incision on the end of my finger and squeezed the blood in thin trickles and fat drops into a third jar. I sat down with a fourth jar on my lap, and thought of sad things.”
These collections are cooked, evaporated, and used as salts. But the success of his restaurant jeopardises the bodily exertions: urine changes with drinking, a healthy bank account makes it harder to cry.
I don’t know if I would recommend this book; I don’t know if I would read it again; but I am glad that I read it. Even though it flirted on the edge of creating my own nightmares, Donwood’s weird space is interesting, baldly told, a bit scary. He has accepted the frightening reality of this life, and we dip in and out of this in the short and sharp stories.