by Jonathan Louis Duckworth.
Doughty’s work of flash prose starts from a deceptively simple premise: the short questionnaires that in the Age of COVID have become ubiquitous features of health clinics and hospitals. However, beyond the opening question, which plays the concept straight, the piece wildly diverts from its quotidian premise. It should be noted, though, that while the end result of "Screening Questionnaire" is a surreal journey through the narrator/speaker’s headspace, the escalation that takes the reader from the tedium of screening questions to something entirely else is remarkably logical, in that each associative leap the piece makes is proportional and has clear linkages.
Throughout the piece, Doughty relishes the opportunities to laugh with and at language and its inherent absurdity. Doughty illuminates how so much of human language is reliant on dead metaphors whose literal meanings must be ignored, even outright buried, lest they disrupt the tenuous realities we attempt to forge with our words. Lines such as “Alternatively, crow’s feet that then grew bodies and took flight” demonstrate this. Doughty also has fun at the expense of the piece’s unnamed protagonist, whose journey from hypothetical existence (the “you” referred to in the questionnaire) to a very real existence is established through increasingly specific details, such as a beautiful description of a bathroom tap overgrown with lichens.
What is most effective about "Screening Questionnaire" is that despite the occasion and inspiration that created it, it feels more timeless than timely, not dependent on the reader being inside of the pandemic history bubble for it to have meaning and a capacity for exerting delight. This is down to the piece breaking away so entirely from its premise and becoming, as I mentioned before, something else. To paraphrase the piece’s closing question, “Isn’t that better than the alternative?