Severance: Stories – 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 imagined: Medusa (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.
Review: This is probably the most creative concept for a book I’ve ever seen. Supposedly, a head remains conscious for 90 seconds after decapitation. The author takes historical figures, animals, and mythological creatures who were decapitated and writes 240-word prose-poems about what goes through their minds in the 90 seconds after they lose their heads.
First, I have to say that I love the design of this book. The pages are really thick, and the colors, fonts, and layout are unusual. Whoever designed it did an amazing job. It’s definitely an eye-catching piece of artwork.
The stories didn’t have as much decapitation as I expected. Many of the severed heads focus on points in their lives before the actual decapitation, so most of the stories are tasteful. None of them are particularly gory or graphic.
If you don’t like poetry, you probably won’t like this book. The stories are written stream-of-consciousness style with minimal punctuation and explanation. They feel more like poems than short stories. Luckily, I like poetry, so I found these prose-poems fascinating and weird. I was going to read a few of them before bed one night, and I ended up finishing most of the book.
Since the stories are so short, I can’t summarize them without spoilers, so I’ll give you the titles of my favorites.
“Dragon (beast, beheaded by Saint George, 301)”
“Ah Balam (Mayan ballplayer, beheaded by custom as captain of losing team, 803)”
“Pierre-Francois Lacenaire (criminal and memoirist, guillotined for murder, 1836)”
“Ta Chin (Chinese wife, beheaded by her husband, 1838)”
“Charles H. Stuart (Texas farmer, beheaded by his two teenage daughters, 1904)”
“Chicken (Americauna pullet, beheaded in Alabama for Sunday dinner, 1958)”
My only criticism of this collection is that the stories start to feel very repetitive. I would have liked more variation in the way that they are written. There are 62 of them in the book, and they all start to blur together by the end.
I think I would have appreciated the collection more if I had more knowledge of history and mythology, but overall, I really enjoyed these strange little prose-poems.