March 28, 2016: “Chicken” by Robert Olen Butler

Welcome to AWP Week at Story366! Through some absolutely AMAZING coincidence, it’s also Short-Short Week! I can’t believe that those two ended up overlapping. I need to check with my secretary about scheduling. Something.

But really, because I’m wondering how much free time I’ll have this week while in LA, I went with my planned-anyway shorts week so I’d spend a little less time reading. Same amount of time writing, I’m guessing, but less time reading. Then again, I have five hours of plane rides tomorrow and a four-hour layover in Denver. I’m not sure how much Clash of Clans I can play on my phone, but it’s not a stretch to think I’ll have time to get ahead.

Still, today marks the first of seven straight posts on shorts. I’ve done only one short so far this year, Jac Jemc’s “A Violence” a couple of weeks ago, and even that story was almost five pages in her book.  Honestly, on paragraph three of this essay, I still don’t know how exactly I’m going to fill a blog post every day for stories that all shorter than my usual blog post—I’m already past the word count of today’s Robert Olen Butler story and I haven’t even gotten to that part yet. I smell a lot of silly AWP anecdotes coming your way (see my Madeline ffitch post from February 10 for an example).

Anyway, transition time: Robert Olen Butler has written a lot of books. I’ve read his story collections, all of which are great. They’re not only great, but they’re really different from each other. For example, his A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, which won the Pulitzer Prize twenty or so years ago, features stories from the point of view of Vietnamese citizens displaced in America by the war, specifically in Louisiana. His next collection, Tabloid Dreams, borrows headlines from real supermarket tabloids for its story titles, Butler moving from there to write original stories. He ranks right up there with Michael Martone in terms of high-concept books, and both of them influenced me to write my own conceptual books, Chicago Stories and I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life.

Butler wrote a third concept collection, Severences, which I read from for today. The concept here might be his best yet. It’s based on a couple of scientific urban legends, more or less: 1) when removed from the body, a human head will remain conscious for a minute and a half; 2) people can speak at a rate of 160 words for minute. Butler took those concepts, did some math, and composed a book of 240-word stories about people who have famously been beheaded. Each story is a monologue by a real beheaded person, and each story is exactly 240 words. Again, brilliant.

And even though I’m supposed to be saving time this week by reading shorts, I ended up reading Severences in one sitting, the whole shebang. The stories are ordered chronologically, starting with “Mud,” about a caveman-type, one beheaded by a saber-toothed tiger (according to fossil records, I guess). Butler then moves through history, covering all of the obvious historical figures like John the Baptist, a couple of the apostles, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, and Marie Antoinette, but also includes more recent beheadings, such as Jayne Mansfield,  Nicole Brown-Simpson (yeah, I forgot about that one, too), and several American civilians captured while working in the Middle East during the 2000s. Butler even makes room for some light-hearted choices, such as St. George’s dragon (alongside St. George), as well as the subject of today’s story, a chicken, the representative of the billions of fowl we’ve severed for own dietary needs.

So I’ve spent a lot of words already explaining the concept, which on the first eighty-seven days of this blog, has brought me to a full-length story to discuss, giving me a plot and themes to discuss while leaving room for me to not give away the ending. No such luxury here, as me including the entire 240 words of ths story at this point would still leave me short of a thousand words, my rough goal for each post. I can’t do better than Butler’s actual story, but in any case, here goes.

“Chicken” is about this chicken, you see. While today we have modern food-processing plants that surgically remove the chicken’s meat from its body, causing no actual harm or pain to the animal itself (actually, I’ve been told they enjoy the process, often showing gratitude to the scientists performing the procedure), the world used to have to take the chicken by the neck, spread it out across a stump in the pen, and remove the head with the swift blow of a hatchet, killing the animal in most cases. Savage, I know. Butler’s story is about one of these era-challenged victims, a common American chicken that has indeed lost its head. The story depicts its final thoughts, which include an attempt to eat a stick, one it’s mistaken for a worm on previous occasions. Afterwards, the chicken finds a patch of feed, which it enjoys as well, and then it moves to another part of the yard. Like usual, I will not reveal the ending of this story, but it’s easy to guess, nobody’s giving this chicken a huge line of credit any time soon.

Okay, that was silly. Note, though, this book is more a book of poems than it is of stories. While all of the pieces are in prose form, made up of a single paragraph, none include punctuation, capitalization, or other sentence attributes. They take the form of a stream of consciousness—at least most of them do—and Butler proves his meddle as a true wordsmith, a master of rhythm, sensory details, and flow. Each piece has a momentum that leads to its predictable but still tragic—every single time—ending. It seems like every person (or dragon or chicken) becomes a poet at the end of their lives, as if our bodies are the only things holding us back, keeping us from speaking so profoundly, our gorgeous brains finally unencumbered, set free. I loved reading every one of these stories; really, “Chicken,” for all its silliness, might be the one I enjoyed the least, it serving as comic relief, while the rest expose humans at their most desperate, most defined, and most absurd.

I usually see Robert Olen Butler at AWP, passing through the book fair, somewhere about town. I hope he reads this, so when I go up to say thanks for writing this genius little book, he’ll know that it’s not just some passing fancy, but something I invested 1/366th of m year to. Butler has a great sense of humor—I’ve seen that in his writing, in his interviews, and in my brief correspondence with him, when he judged Mid-American Review’s fiction contest for me ten years ago or so. I’m betting he’ll appreciate this project, a pretty great honor for me.

Robert Olen Butler




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