Humor by Stanley Donwood
The publisher of this book wishes me to vouch for the writer of this book who is a friend of mine 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. This has been duly done now in the form of this quote. I am sure the book is very good though I cannot remember what it is called or whether I have read it. I’ve read lots of his stuff and it’s always good and I am in no way biased. Thom Yorke, middle-aged father of two.
Having read that quote on the blurb for this book, I was intrigued enough by it and its rather lovely cover featuring giant red spiders in a forest to accept a review copy. Stanley Donwood is an artist, renowned for working with the band Radiohead (he designed their OK Computer sleeve for instance). He also illustrated the book Holloway by Dan Richards and Robert MacFarlane which you may have seen.
Humor is not an art book however, but a collection of Donwood’s writings grouped into sections named for the four humors – sanguine, phlegm, choler and melancholy. The pieces that make up this collection vary from a single paragraph to over a dozen pages. In the Introduction, Donwood tells us how he mostly wrote these pieces in a period of his life during which he had bad dreams and used to wake with a scream.
In the first Sanguine group is a half-page piece called Game:
I am disturbed to discover that my colleagues have invented a new game which seems to involve attempting to kill me in every juvenile way that presents itself to them. They delight in surprising me with shoves into the paths of oncoming double-decker buses, constructing ridiculous rope-and-pulley devices with the aim of dropping heavy furniture on my head, placing tripwires at the tops of escalators, and other such inanities.
They persist for some weeks, during which I become increasingly adept at avoiding suddent death by blackly humorous means. I feel that my senses are sharpened day by day, that my sight is keener, my reflexes quicker.
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 deeds.
Eventually my heightened awareness evolves into a vividly focused paranoia. I can only retreat; I move surreptitiously to a small seaside resort on the east coast and wat, slowly, for a death of my own choosing.
That short one does at least have a beginning, a middle and an end, and is not an entirely unknown scenario (cf: Inspector Clouseau and Cato). But many of the other short pieces in this first section were just downright weird – and reading them was a bit like listening to a friend telling you about the weird dream they had last night. Other peoples’ dreams may be bizarre but, sleep scientists and psychiatrists excepted, the weirdness only has any real significance for the dreamer.
In the Phlegm section, a little tale called Condiment is about collecting his bodily secretions of urine, ejaculate, blood and tears, harvesting the salts from them after the liquid has been evaporated and using it as a spice in cooking. Very odd indeed.
One I did really like from the Choler section was entitled East Croydon – and just comprised a list of the things seen from a train window approaching the station. More Croydon references – they keep on coming, (see my previous post)!
Nearly all the pieces are written in the first person. Many of these ‘micro-narratives’ have that dreamy, stream of consciousness feel to them – they could almost be flash fiction. Others, as we’ve seen above, are more structured. I enjoyed quite a few of these little stories, but many, although bizarre and born of nightmares, lacked either true horror or enough charm, as in Murakami’s recent novella The Strange library for instance (see here).
As a whole, Humor was more of a miss than a hit for me. I’m not a fan of Radiohead’s albums after The Bends (which I adore) either – OK Computer does nothing for me. I did love the glorious painting by Donwood on the endpapers though … (6/10).
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Source: Publisher – thank you!
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Humor by Stanley Donwood. Pub Nov 2014 by Faber and Faber. Hardback, 192 pages.
Holloway by Robert MacFarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards. Faber paperback.
OK Computer by Radiohead. CD, 1997.