Adventures in Reading

Severance by Robert Olen Butler

Hi, my name is Bookchronicle and I have an addiction to the Magic Farm. Yes, I have been ensared by the attraction of a cheesey Yahoo! Game for roughly 75-hours and have neither read nor written anything. This is a perfect example why it is probably a good idea that I don’t have the Internet or television at home – without these items I (usually) get so much more done. However, despite my latest distraction of growing pixelated flowers (perhaps compensation for my lack of green thumb in my home garden?) I finally have finished Robert Olen Butler’s short story collection Severance.

After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation. – Dr. Dassy D’estaing, 1883

In a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute. – Dr. Emily Reasoner, A Sourcebook of Speech, 1975

The 62 stories in Severance are based on these two quotes. Sixty-two tales of decapitation as flashed through the head after being severed in exactly 240 words. The share brilliance and gumption of Butler’s Severance was more than enough to prod me into picking up the collection. The stories range from Medusa, St. Valentine, Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, a chicken, Yukio Mishima, and finally concludes with the author’s own decapitation. Olen is not only giving the reader a wonderful concept with engaging stories, but he is also attempting to express the history of humanity with the language and flow altering within every story.

On the book jacket, Dave Egger’s is quoted as saying “In concept, Severance is brilliant. In execution, it’s even better–beautiful, hilarious, horrifying, and humane.” And I mostly agree with Eggers but the execution of some of the stories I felt were shaky if not stale. Keep in mind though that Olen goes into this book with limitations and if you have ever attempted to write a precise amount of words, creatively or not, you quickly learn the worth of a single word. I cannot say that no story could not have used five more words or five fewer, but I do think Butler performed an admirable job when considering his objective.

However after saying this, some of the stories were astonishingly beautiful too. The first story in the collection that really moved me was “Ta Chin, Chinese wife, beheaded by her husband, 1838,” which is approximately half way into the collection. The last thoughts traverse Ta Chin’s childhood to the moment of decapitation when she reflects in her final eight words: “please, before my head cut off my feet.” The tale of “Paul Gorguloff, Russian immigrant to France, guillotined for assassinating French President Paul Doumer at charity book signing, 1932” made me want to reach for my history book. Within “Paul Gorguloff” Olen is a master at delivering a politcal sliver.

The stories read very poetically and use only the lone comma for punctuation. I found the lack of punctuation contributed to the complexity of the stories. When a period or dash or semi-colon is not present to tell you when to pause or stop a thought the reader is forced to start making these decisions. This was my first time reading Severance or anything by Butler, but I very much want to reread this collection and have eagerly been suggesting this to all of my fellow short story lovers.

Other opinions: books i done read


“Jumper Down” by Don Shea
“Thus we may allow an entire page in a novel to be forgettable, but we approach a flash fiction as if all of it may be memorable.”

Short story is somewhat of a vague term that can be used to describe a great body of work. One area, for example, is flash fiction and my most recent short story reading was from Flash Fiction Forward edited by James Thomas and Robert Shapard. For this revised edition, the editor’s introduction goes about describing what a flash fiction is: “very short stories … most depended for their success not on their length but on their depth, clarity of vision, and human significance.”

However, an interesting question that the introduction to Flash Fiction Forward asks regards the length of a short story. Any work within the collection is 1/3 of a page to 750 words. Anything shorter was disregarded as “likely to be a mere summary, or perhaps a joke.” In a comment on flash fiction, Richard Bausch says “when a story is compressed so much, the matter of it tends to require more size: that is, in order order to make it work in so small a place its true subject must be proportionately larger.”

The first story in this collection left my mouth gaping. “Jumper Down” by Don Shea is the story of Henry a retiring paramedic whose specialty has always been talking “jumpers” out of suicide. “Jumper Down” extends a glimpse into Henry’s life, relationship with his co-workers, and his final call to duty that arrives at his retirement party.

Shea’s story takes an interesting perspective towards suicide and rather than focusing on the person attempting suicide or a close relation it’s from a complete stranger. Nonetheless, it can be part of this strangers job to talk you out of it or to clean up the mess. Threads of dark humor kept me amused as the first few paragraphs explore the notions of “jumper up” and “jumper down.” Half way through during the retirement party the call comes in. When I first read this all I could think was “how predictable, it’ll be a ‘jumper down’ scenario and Henry will reflect on his life.” In my head (you’d be amazed at what can flit through my head during a few sentences) I had decided the conclusion and written off “Jumper Down.”

“It looked like a circus act. No exaggeration. Two half gainers and a backflip, and every second of it caught in the spotlights. The guy hit the ground about thirty yards from where we were standing, and Henry and I were over there on the run, although it was obvious he was beyond help.

He was dead, but he hadn’t died.”

This is where my eyes popped. I’ve said it repeatedly but I’ll say it again, I love a short story with a good twist and I didn’t see this one coming. However, when Henry arrives at the dying man and yells into his ear “I just gotta tell ya, I wanted you to know, that jump was fucking magnificent.”

“Jumper Down” is a thrilling story and as Bausch said “when a story is compressed so much, the matter of it tends to require more size,” and this story was a perfect example. It’s an ordinary tree of a story that suddenly bursts into feathers.