Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Talking Heads: Severance by Robert Olen Butler

There aren’t many single-author collections of flash fiction readily available. As it’s mostly new in terms of being a recognized form, and one that has also come of age along with the Internet, most of the collections I’ve seen are available solely online in electronic form or available in very limited print runs, and I imagine that most people, even those who are regular readers of books, don’t know they exist. Even more, single-author collections of flash fiction that focus on a particular theme--be it subject matter or particular word length--are even more difficult to find.

Robert Olen Butler’s 2006 book, Severance, is one of those rare instances of a single-author collection of flash fiction stories based on a particular theme and prescribed word length. It’s a collection of 62 works, each of which is 240 words in length. Each story follows the thoughts of a person who has just been decapitated, a rather morbid premise that lends itself to a rambling, stream of consciousness, almost poetic narration. For Mr. Butler, these stories were unlike any he had done and perhaps unlike any that have been seen.

The characters in these works range from actual historical figures to fictional ones and span the time from primitive humanity to the present. There are stories based on Medusa, John the Baptist and other biblical figures, a dragon, Anne Boleyn, Sir Walter Raleigh, a chicken, various unknown, average people throughout history, victims of more current events, and, the final, morbidly comic swing, the author himself at the end. Each story is prefaced by a brief description containing the decapitated’s name, who they were, when they died, and the circumstances behind their unfortunate end. A representative story can be found here (this one is of Dioscorus, a companion to the apostle Paul--there are some other samples at the Google Books link, if you care to wade through the slightly tedious preview function). 

It would be easy to look at these works and say, these aren’t stories. Perhaps, though I dislike most discussions on whether or not certain works of flash fiction can be considered stories in terms of what we know makes a traditional story. I think one of the freeing things of the genre is that it opens up a wide range of possibilities for fiction. Sometimes, flash fiction resembles a prose poem, or a character sketch, or a list, or straight dialogue, or even a recipe or set of instructions.

One of the limitations of Mr. Butler’s premise is that the stories ultimately end up taking a similar form from one to the next. If each character has been decapitated, and the words represent the stream of consciousness of a dead person (something resembling an almost dreamlike state of narration) who’s involuntarily expending his/her last bit of thought, it’s unavoidable that you might end up with some repetition in terms of style. Robert Olen Butler, though, is a gifted writer who in all of his works displays a sense of humanity for each of his characters (even if they aren’t human); he can make the repetitious fresh, something not easily done.

I think it’s admirable and even to some extent essential that he went experimental and wrote these stories. It’s admirable to try something completely out of sorts when you have an established identity as a literary writer (Mr. Butler is the author of 11 novels and a handful of short story collections, including A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize). It’s essential in that I think it helps fiction grow when our best writers are taking chances and doing something different and not just rehashing what initially brought them acclaim. 

Severance is not Mr. Butler's greatest work, but it is definitely his most experimental and unexpected.  If you're fond of flash fiction or like to write it, it's an interesting study on how someone else has approached the form.

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