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Severance: Stories
     

Severance: Stories

5.0 1
by Robert Olen Butler
 

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The human head is believed to remain in a state of consciousness for one and one-half minutes after decapitation. In a heightened state of emotion, people speak at the rate of 160 words per minute. Inspired by the intersection of these two seemingly unrelated concepts, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler wrote sixty-two stories, each exactly 240 words in

Overview

The human head is believed to remain in a state of consciousness for one and one-half minutes after decapitation. In a heightened state of emotion, people speak at the rate of 160 words per minute. Inspired by the intersection of these two seemingly unrelated concepts, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler wrote sixty-two stories, each exactly 240 words in length, capturing the flow of thoughts and feelings that go through a person's mind after their head has been severed. The characters are both real and imaginedMedusa (beheaded by Perseus, 2000 BC), Anne Boleyn (beheaded at the behest of Henry VIII, 1536), a chicken (beheaded for Sunday dinner, Alabama, 1958), and the author (decapitated, on the job, 2008). Told with the intensity of a poet and the wit of a great storyteller, these final thoughts illuminate and crystallize more about the characters' own lives and the worlds they inhabit than many writers manage to convey in full-length biographies or novels. The stories, which have appeared in literary magazines across the country, are a delightful and intriguing creative feat from one of today's most inventive writers.

Editorial Reviews

Tom Barbash
In Severance, he has brought the dead back to life through the limitless will of his imagination. The final story is told by the decapitated cranium of the author himself-- proof that, for all his literary hubris, Robert Olen Butler knows to quit while he’s, well ... you know.
— The New York Times
"Butler has one-upped himself...he has brought the dead back to life through the limitless will of his imagination." -(New York Times)
Publishers Weekly
Lively writing and a catchy conceit make this collection from the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain a thought-provoking, if morbid, read. Sixty-two entries, each in the voice of a beheaded historical, mythical, animal or modern figure, make up the collection. Each is exactly 240 words, Butler's estimate of the number of words that could be spoken by a decapitated head before oxygen runs out. Among the post-mortem monologues Butler imagines are John the Baptist, Medusa, Cicero, a chicken, Nicole Brown Simpson, Maximilien Robespierre, Valeria Messalina and himself, "decapitated on the job" in 2008. Though clever in arrangement (Butler convincingly constructs the mind of a dragon, then puts his killer, St. George, on the next page) and complex in its considerations (religious faith is an ongoing theme, from the apostle Matthew's recollection of conversion to a Yemeni executioner's discovery that "the mercy of God seeks sinful love before righteous hatred"), the collection's darting attentions and fractured narratives may frustrate readers. Several entries take a light tone, but what lingers is an unsettling sense of the absurdity and prevalence of violence. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Some believe the human head remains conscious for a minute and a half post-decapitation. Moreover, in a heightened emotional state, words rush out of our mouths at the rate of 160 per minute. With the enigmatic beauty of Vladimir Nabokov's prose and the inscrutable brevity of Jorge Luis Borges, Pulitzer Prize winner Butler (A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain) captures the thoughts of various such talking heads in 62 short, short stories consisting of 240 words each. The characters are both fictional and historical: e.g., a mud man beheaded by a saber-toothed tiger circa 40,000 B.C.E., Anne Boleyn beheaded by Henry VIII in 1536, and actress Jayne Mansfield, who lost her head in a car accident in 1967. Butler's tale of the chicken beheaded for a Sunday dinner in 1958 Alabama gives new meaning to the old joke about the chicken crossing the road. With veiled references to his previous writings, Butler imagines his own decapitation by elevator in 2008 after a book signing. Humorous and beguiling, these stories eloquently capture the ways in which our most mundane thoughts spill out of us the moment we lose our heads. For most collections.-Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Decapitated heads give us their final thoughts in 62 very short stories from Pulitzer Prize-winner Butler (Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, 1992, etc.). The author's previous collection, Had a Good Time (2004), also had an overarching premise, but inventing the life experiences behind postcard texts isn't nearly as bizarre as his launching pad here. Two opening quotes inform us that a severed head retains consciousness for 90 seconds after it's severed, and that "in a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute." So each of these monologues, most by historical figures, contains 240 words, not a lot in which to capture the essence of someone's existence. Still, the ever-ingenious Butler manages to create some haunting moments as he moves through time from a hunter beheaded by a saber-toothed tiger in 40,000 b.c. through his own imagined demise in 2008 (decapitated by an elevator door, it appears). A 19th-century French criminal seems to almost welcome the guillotine's "ferocious embrace" in his frighteningly erotic musings. A Chinese wife crippled by foot-binding cries, "please, before my head, cut off my feet." A baroness killed on Hitler's orders nostalgically recalls the decadent pleasures of Weimar Germany and sees her executioner dressed in white tie and tails, just like the emcee in Cabaret. Several creepy entries are reminiscent of the style of murder Middle Eastern terrorists prefer for dispatching their hostages (mercifully, Daniel Pearl is not among them), and the thoughts of a Muslim woman beheaded by fatwa powerfully evoke her imprisonment behind the veil. But the primary emphasis here is existential rather than political; people remember thecaress of a mother or a lover, the joys or traumas from which they have just been finally separated. Thematic unity is the only thing missing: The volume as a whole doesn't cohere into anything more significant than the sum of its oddly beautiful parts. Extremely well-executed (so to speak), but it still seems more like a stunt than an artistically necessary stratagem.
From the Publisher
"Butler has one-upped himself....he has brought the dead back to life through the limitless will of his imagination." —The New York Times

"Glorious, pure poetry....a deeply empathic experience for both writer and reader." —Los Angeles Times

"A stream-of-consciousness masterpiece." —The Birmingham News

"Robert Olen Butler...is a master of the performance piece. ...these stories capture and captivate the reader." —The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune

"In concept, Severance is brilliant. In execution, it's even better—beautiful, hilarious, horrifying, and humane." —Dave Eggers

"With Butler's signature mastery of language, Severance delivers a ghost chorus speaking with poetic urgency, and each of these finales leaves us shivering and breathless." —Amy Tan

"Severance is a dazzling tour of history and humanity." —Ann Patchett

In his three previous story collections, Robert Olen Butler has entered into the heads of an astonishing range of characters - from the Vietnamese exiles in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning first collection, "A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain," to the grotesques of "Tabloid Dreams" to the lost souls in the postcard scribbles of "Had a Good Time." But with "Severance," Butler has one-upped himself. He has written an entire short-story collection in the voices of decapitated heads.

Butler conceived of the idea after encountering a gruesome piece of trivia: that a human head is believed to continue in a state of consciousness for one and a half minutes after decapitation. Having then determined, from another source, that "in a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute," Butler arrived at a new - and unlikely to be replicated - art form, the vignette of the severed head, told in exactly 240 words.

Attempting to span more than 40,000 years of human (and occasionally nonhuman) history, Butler chooses an all-star list of 62 "talking heads" (his original title choice; frowned on, he says, by his publisher) including the Gorgon Medusa, two of the apostles, the actress Jayne Mansfield, the novelist Yukio Mishima, John the Baptist, Charles H. Stuart (a Texas farmer beheaded by his two teenage daughters), a German baroness who ran afoul of Hitler, a Viet Minh guerrilla leader guillotined by the French and three victims of Henry VIII.

Their stories are told in trancelike, first-person run-on sentences, unpunctuated prose poems in which Butler manages both to create an identifiable consciousness for his characters and to provide a glimpse of vanished worlds. His heads examine their lives and attempt to atone for their sins; sometimes, they even report on their deaths. But despite Butler's efforts to give each figure a distinct voice, when the stories are read in quick succession they begin, if you will, to bleed into one another. They are best read separately, with some space between.

The first entry, "Mud," captures the last thoughts of a cave man killed by a saber-toothed tiger: "It was time to eat, to eat the old." Later entries take us through the French Revolution, the pogroms of Eastern Europe, the Vietnam War, the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Iraq war.

In her last flash of consciousness, Butler's Nicole Brown Simpson sees her husband sprinting by as though toward a final end zone, "and I can see what's tucked there in the crook of his arm and it is me, it is my head, and I stare into my own eyes." A Shiite cleric, beheaded by Saddam Hussein, tries desperately to make peace with Allah: "I am penitent, and the echo of my prayers is still in my head." A Mississippi manual laborer, caught sleeping with another man's wife, complains that his assailant "don't even deserve the love of Maisie who has billowy warm thighs." His final vision is of his attempted escape: "Like a greyhound at the track I'll just leap through that window and be clean plumb away from his ax." Even a chicken "beheaded in Alabama for Sunday dinner, 1958" is given its self-parodic due: "I am rushing now along the path and the clucking is for me and it is very loud and a great wide road is suddenly before me and she is beyond and I cross."

In "Tabloid Dreams," Butler took the preposterous - a jealous husband, for example, returning from the grave as a parrot in his cheating wife's home - and made it heartbreaking. In "Severance," he has brought the dead back to life through the limitless will of his imagination. The final story is told by the decapitated cranium of the author himself - proof that, for all his literary hubris, Robert Olen Butler knows to quit while he's, well ... you know. -The New York Times

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780811860987
Publisher:
Chronicle Books LLC
Publication date:
04/30/2008
Pages:
264
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Meet the Author

Robert Olen Butler, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for his short-story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, is the author of many acclaimed works of fiction. His short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, and many other magazines. He lives and teaches in Tallahassee, Florida.

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Severance: Stories 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
GBSfan More than 1 year ago
In an excited state, a person can talk at a rate of 160 words a minute. It has also been theorized that a decapitated head remains conscious for a minute and a half. Robert Olin Butler put those two factoids together and offers a series of stories that are all 240 words long and from the minds of recently beheaded individuals. As with any short story collection, not all of the stories hit the mark--so to speak. But many do. As does the arrangement of the stories. They are listed in chronological order by date of death. But Butler arranges things so we have the last thoughts of a dragon killed by St. George followed by St. George's final utterances after being martyred. If for no other reason, it should be picked up just to see what can be done in 240 words. I think you'll stay around for more than that, though.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Robert Olen Butler is such a fine, creative writer that his works can always be trusted by even the most discerning reader. The intial impact of his latest book SEVERANCE - from the strange but hauntingly beautiful cover art to the premise of the book - may put some readers off: has Butler found a writing gimmick for the sole purpose of getting another novel out on the stands while his glimmer of greatness still is alight? The answer is easily resolved by reading a few of the vignettes that comprise this remarkable book. Butler takes his concept from two postulates: '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.' Fascinating information this and Butler takes it and runs - but with his usual skills and care for the English language and his tireless imagination coupled with historical investigation. What follows are black pages of introduction of people who have been decapitated from Mud man ca. 40,000 BC through the Roman times with the likes of John the Baptist and St Paul, the dragon slain by St George, the multiple beheadings surrounding King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth, through the French Revolution guillotine victims such as Robespierre, Marie Antoinette and Andre Chenier, to some grisly 19th century machine beheadings, black slaves, Vietnamese, the artist Mishima who requested beheading as part of his ritualistic disembowelment, down to more contemporary times such as the accident that made Jayne Mansfield lose her head to Saddam Hussein's machinations and unknown victims and ending with Butler giving his own elegy from his future beheading in 2008!, and after the black introductions are terse 240 word pieces of thoughts as these people died. If this sounds like a series of 240 word essays on the horrors of dying then the reader has not read much Robert Olen Butler. What he has given us is a minute and a half flashback of history of each victim that traipses through the highlights of living and the expectations and disappointments that could so easily be imagined 'as your life flashes in front of you' at the time of death. Brilliantly written and endlessly informative and fascinating, this is a book not to be read at the rate that beheaded people speak: this is a series of moving pages of lives condensed and poetically arranged for perusing at various times when the reader hungers for something refreshingly new. Grady Harp