THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY MAY SEE
another writing length come of age—the short short, or flash fiction. Not everyone agrees on the same boundaries between flash fiction and short stories. Some say a piece flashes if it is captured in less than a thousand words. Robert Olen Butler won the Pulitzer Prize for his story collection, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain
, and published ten novels, two other story collections, and a creative nonfiction book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction
before publishing Mots de tęte
, which he translated and published as Severance
a year later, in 2006. He constrains himself in his Severance
to the flash form, but not only that. He ties a tighter noose around his pen, confining each of the sixty-two short stories to exactly 240 words.
There is a viable conceit to Butler's method. The jacket flap announces it in two italicized sentences: "After decapitation, the human head is believed to remain in a state of consciousness for one and one-half minutes. In a heightened state of emotion, people speak at the rate of 160 words per minute." Why sixty-two monologues by sixty-two decapitated heads? Neither the author nor the editor explain this number. But it sure does make for a good length: 250 pages of a square-shaped book whose every other leaf is blank, and half its pages run black.
The journey that begins with a caveman's beheading by a saber-toothed tiger weaves into sixty other consciousnesses before ending with the author, Robert Olen Butler. The last monologue is of Butler himself being decapitated, "on the job", in 2008. In an interview, he said he chose the year for its perfect distance from the present. One hopes that the author suffers no such fate.
Monologues or inner monologues (reader's choice on how to read them) of the dying heads begin with that of a caveman, circa 40,000 B.C. We follow his breathless invocation of a life lived hunted and hunting, and within the 240 words he can speak in his allotted one and one-half minutes, the caveman ponders over a "suckle woman", "long suns" and "touchwood". These words are not clearly explained in the narrative, and they do not recur in the other narratives. But what the caveman does is invoke his life, and so we get a glimpse of the author's intention for the coming pages. He's not going to pussyfoot with the life-ending 90 seconds and either make the heads crunch their lives into fast-forwarded glimpses of imagery from their lives. Nor will he inflame the final moments with Hollywood pathos. Instead, the characters stay themselves, with their concerns and motivations intact. If the entire world's a stage, and each player has a part to play, then they continue to play the parts assigned to them beyond hindrances such as detachment of their heads from their bodies.
The journey that begins with a caveman's beheading by a saber-toothed tiger weaves into sixty other consciousnesses before ending with the author, Robert Olen Butler. The last monologue is of Butler himself being decapitated, "on the job", in 2008. In an interview, he said he chose the year for its perfect distance from the present. One hopes that the author suffers no such fate. But for those whose lives have already ended in this singular detaching manner, Butler has considerably justified the form he has chosen. There are so many beheadings in our history: Medusa (2000 B. C.) and Cicero (43 B. C.) follow the caveman. Cicero's head says, "…I lift my upper body and the senators are packed before me like sardelles straight from the sea…" Saint George's beheaded dragon (301 A. D.) is featured, wondering at his stilled wings, as is Saint George himself, since he was beheaded by the Emperor Diocletian in 303 A. D. Reliving his fifteen minutes, ol' George recounts, "…I sit on the edge of this ignorant village and the dragon lifts his head and unfurls his wings and I thump my fist upon my breast-plate and I draw my sword and in the center of me there is only the peace that passes all understanding because of the things I have eaten…"
A Mayan ballplayer is featured, executed for captaining the losing team. Monarchs, scientists and court jesters litter the middle pages, including Gooseneck in 1494, Catherine in 1542, Lady Jane Gray in 1554, Mary Stuart in 1587, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793 and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier in 1794.
These are usually guillotined.
His biggest gambit is that no sentence ever ends. Each monologue is a series of run-on sentences with spare, if any, punctuation.
An American slave, Jacob, makes a cameo in 1855, as does a Chinese wife in 1838 and an Apache warrior in 1880. Three fifths into the book, a chicken makes an appearance, beheaded in Alabama for Sunday dinner in 1958. She must be clucking to the nines about being featured out of all chickens in the world. Her monologue is no less richer than that of any human: "…I look and look and listen for and the flying ones come down and they walk among us and they cock their heads and hear the slither in the earth and they grab and up one comes but after a rain it's good for me the worms come up…" The last twenty or so monologues show Butler's wide range of research for this book. Alwi Shah, a Yemeni executioner is cast in 1958, as is Jennifer Hadley, a marketing director, in 1989. Yukio Mishima, the novelist, makes an appearance in 1970. A 9/11 victim is included, a systems analyst named Lois Kennerly. Beyond these lies our world full of suicide bombers like Hanadi Tayseer Jaradat (self-detonated beheading in 2003) and victims of intense rage, such as Earl Dagget and Maisie Hobbs, both murdered in 2003—Earl by his lover's husband and Maisie by her husband.
Severance's last monologue, Butler's own, ends with the words, "…I lean forward and I stick my head out to listen…" He truly seems to be listening. His ambitious book makes it clear that he is willing to stick his neck out. Death may be a compelling subject to write on, but it is not easy to read about. Especially a collection of sixty-two stories based around the same kind of death could suffer bad publicity. But Butler seems to have pulled it off. His morbid collection boasts all the right names from the caveman to himself. French Revolution victims: check. Victims of modern-day terrorism: check. If anyone is missing, it is a victim who would represent ably the many beheadings carried out by the Russian tsars. Their words would have added an interesting dimension to the collection.
If the entire world's a stage, and each player has a part to play, then they continue to play the parts assigned to them beyond hindrances such as detachment of their heads from their bodies.
What will help this collection gain further audience and acclaim is that many of the pieces have been individually published in major literary magazines, such as The Cincinatti Review, Five Points, Mcsweeney's, Tin House, Ninth Letter
, and others. The parts already reek of success, and the whole makes for a substantial collection. Kudos be to Butler for seeing through the possibilities of two seemingly disparate sentences and bringing them together in such daring fashion.
His biggest gambit is that no sentence ever ends. Each monologue is a series of run-on sentences with spare, if any, punctuation. Textual variations occur, such as some words in all-caps and re-enacted dialog in italicized fragments. But Butler takes a huge risk by creating these monologues in a fashion that is not easily readable. Perhaps the 240-word limit mitigates that necessary risk, and maybe there is no risk, considering that the whole work has a linear timeline. This may yet begin a new debate: is Severance a novel made of fragments?
Even if it is a novel of flash fictions, Severance is an attempt at fusing the genre of short short with that of a novel's long arc. Butler has succeeded at something large that cannot be quantified just yet.