Review: The Jokes by Stephen Thomas

Reviewed: The Jokes by Stephen Thomas
from BookThug, Toronto


An anthropomorphized rabbit experiences writer’s block. A father considers blowing his family’s home to smithereens. A nurse contemplates marrying his coworker. These stories, unrelated to each other, appear along eighty-three other microfiction pieces in Stephen Thomas’s debut collection The Jokes. This collection of one-page stories, which could double as an absurdist joke book, highlight the nuances of humanity—the loneliness, fear of abandonment, facing one’s own mortality—to show how, well, absurd, human nature can be.


Stephen Thomas tackles these nuances with biting humor reminiscent of not only microfiction icon Lydia Davis but also generations of absurdist comedians, using off-kilter imagery and bleak subject matter punctuated by sheer silliness. The titles themselves are in on the joke—sometimes they act as a punch line, and other times the relationship between the title and the story is entirely incongruous. It comes as no surprise to learn that Thomas has playwriting experience. Many pieces are reminiscent of “open-ended scenes,” where the dialogue is intentionally ambiguous so as not to suggest any kind of inherent plot. This kind of scene work is a good tool for actors, as it encourages imagination and quick thinking, but it serves microfiction just as well to establish an unsettlingly hazy world where the reader will not be distracted by dialogue and can instead focus on the emotional trials of each character we meet.


The standout pieces are the ones that show more through what goes unsaid. More interesting than the quick mention of a woman’s facial reconstruction surgery in a story that lasts little longer than ten sentences is wondering how she came into that fate to begin with. A piece titled “Beer” uses fewer characters than a Tweet, but Thomas expresses the comfort, warmth, and sheer delight of a friendship in a more visceral (and concise) way than most established novelists do. There are no names, and no idea how they came to be friends or why, but it does not matter. He is not interested in having us get to know these characters. We meet them in passing, and build the rest of their worlds ourselves.


I tried writing microfiction once. It was an assignment for an advanced fiction workshop, a class in which I was already struggling. I wrote a one-page story I ripped roughly seventy percent from my own life. In chronicling an entire relationship between two people in less than a thousand words, I forwent including necessary details to build the world in favor of painting them in too-broad strokes. I was both too wordy and too cautious, and my piece turned out to be too empty. Thomas makes none of these mistakes. He is crafty enough to embrace the “less is more” strategy, using a fine brush (instead of my broad strokes) to include only the nuances that matter, and letting his reader fill in the rest. He writes with abandon and without fear, and has a clear point of view—relationships are hard, humanity is fucked, so let’s laugh about it while we can.

Cassandra Baim grew up outside of Chicago and earned a BA in English from Syracuse University. She has previously been published on Medium and The Flexist. When she’s not selling books at New York’s most famous bookstore, she enjoys biking across the Brooklyn Bridge and teaching her cat to play fetch.

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