[(essay date 2012) In the following essay, Clark claims, using “Walter Raleigh” as a case in point, that Butler’s micronarratives in Severance challenge conventional distinctions of genre and reality, creating a discursive space suspended between historical reality and fantasy.]
Robert Olen Butler is best known for his Pulitzer prize winning collection of short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. The collection of stories adopts a multi-cultural perspective on the lives of Vietnamese refugees who settled into New Orleans after the Vietnam War. Several iconoclastic works followed the Pulitzer: Intercourse and Severance, and although they continued to expand upon the concept of the short story as a representation of the intermeshing frontiers between myth, folklore and history, the narrative framework of these memory clips became more and more contracted. Indeed, Butler’s micronarratives, like Salman Rushdie’s, literary sagas (Midnight’s Children, Booker Prize, 1981), challenge conventionally accepted distinctions of genre and reality. In both cases the fiction is on the periphery of conventional writing techniques. Following in the wake of Rushdie, Butler creates a discursive space that is suspended between historical reality and fantasy. In this way, the micronarrative switches between historical veracity and dreamlike worlds where an imaginary understanding of cultural identities prevails. The “life flashes” in Severance raise the question of the relationship between fiction and reality and how this dichotomy is linked to the fantastic.
If we consider the definition of fantastic as “remote from reality”—“improbable and exaggerated,” the two incipits which Butler placed at the beginning of Severance, point to the fact that he based his theory of the “life flash” on an unrestrainedly fantastic concept. Butler quotes research from Dr. Dassy D’Estaing and Dr. Emily Reasoner, a fanciful physician and speech therapist, to justify the fact that he limits each micronarrative to exactly two-hundred and forty words. He quotes the imaginary Dr. Dassy D’Estaing as having stated in 1883: “After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation.”1 Secondly, he refers to the non-existent Dr. Emily Reasoner, as having affirmed that: “In a heightened state of emotion, we speak at one hundred sixty words a minute.”2 Inspired by the intersection of these two imaginary postulates, Butler limits the life flashes in Severance to two-hundred and forty words; the approximate length of time memory would continue to inhabit a decapitated head. Butler goes on to note that the stories are more about life than death. Each miniature narrative in Severance captures the flow of thought that rushes through the mind of a freshly decapitated head in less than two minutes.3
Butler’s miniature short stories take up no more than one page, switching from historical veracity to dreamlike worlds following a process of imaginative distortion. The sixty-two micronarratives in Severance give voice to a vast range of figures; both mythical and historical. Starting from the dawn of civilization—with a pre-historic man decapitated by a saber-tooth tiger in 40,000 B.C, moving...