The New York Times
Severance: Storiesby Robert Olen Butler
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.
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
- Chronicle Books LLC
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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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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.
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