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SEVERANCE by Robert Olen Butler



by Robert Olen Butler

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2006
ISBN: 0-8118-5614-3
Publisher: Chronicle

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 the caress 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.