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Severance: Storiesby Robert Olen Butler
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"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." Library Journal
"Extremely well-executed (so to speak)." Kirkus Reviews
"Butler's singular perspective on human bloodshed and the power of the mind make Severance not only unique but also unforgettable." Booklist
"At his best, the heavy erotic overtones of the stories infuse with fresh energy what might otherwise be tired commentary on the close working relationship that sex enjoys with death." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"An eloquent wordsmith, [Butler] knows how to mix wit with profound themes. But in Severance, combining whimsy with the deadly horror of decapitation just doesn't cut it." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Severance is by turns thought-provoking, darkly humorous and touching." St. Petersburg Times
"If any doubt remained that Robert Olen Butler has the ability to construct winning fiction out of any damned thing he pleases, this volume of brief stories should allay it once and for all....
"Glorious, pure poetry." Los Angeles Times
"[W]ith Severance, Butler has one-upped himself....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." New York Times
About 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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