Book Review: Severance by Robert Olen Butler


This odd little book is more a collection of thoughts than stories.  Severance by Robert Olen Butler is inspired by two quotes:

After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation.

– Dr. Dassy D’Estaing, 1883

In a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute.

– Dr. Emily Reasoner, A Sourcebook of Speech, 1975

Putting 2 + 2 together, Butler concluded that a severed head would be able to speak (or think) 240 words before expiring.  Thus explains this collection of 62 pieces about what goes through the mind of a severed head.  Each story is exactly 240 words long.  The heads are historical (John the Baptist, Walter Raleigh, Nicole Brown Simpson),  fictional (Medusa, the Dragon slayed by St.  George) and fanciful (a prehistoric man, a chicken, and the author himself).  Over history people are beheaded by angry kings (Henry VIII) and angry mobs (the French Revolution) as well as by murders and in horrible accidents.  The thought are often not about the beheading, but focus on a vital moment in the life of that person as the author imagines it.  The text is written in a primal stream of consciousness, all one sentence no  periods.   I don’t know who all the characters are, but in some ways the people I know nothing about are all the more fascinating to read about in just 240 of heightened speech.

It’s an interesting concept for a book and it works, although I suspect that Butler takes a lot of liberties with the personal histories of the actual people included in his books.  This is especially a concern for those who may still have family alive like Brown Simpson or a woman killed in the World Trade Center attacks (the latter includes a bad pun about Paul Anka singing “Put Your Head on My Shoulder”).  Barring squeamishness though, this book is an intriguing examination of humanity in extreme situations.

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