Severance by Robert Olen Butler

Summary:
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.

My take: 5 stars

I saw this book on a cart outside Books-a-Million years and years ago. I looked through it, thought it was intriguing, and put it back. I have thought of it at various times over the years, and wished I had purchased it. Not only could I not remember the author’s name, I also could not remember the title. The only thing I remembered was that each page was 240 words in length and there was no punctuation.

Fast forward to last week, when I just happened upon it online. Kismet!! It was at Half Price Books, and I ordered it immediately. Imagine my delight when it arrived signed by the author!! Of course, it is signed “To Lauren”, but that matters not to me.

On with the review. First of all, the premise of this one is magnificent! The last thoughts of a freshly decapitated person (well … almost all are people). I would have found it interesting to know what the person was thinking about their current situation, but I’ll bet it would have all been the same. Kind of a “Well, crap!” trail of thought. Instead, Olen Butler writes their last thoughts as the thing they loved most in life. It may be memories of a father, a lover, or a Messiah. What they would more than likely miss most.

Taking this vantage point not only varies the stories a great deal, it also gives insight into the lives of these people. As much as 240 words can.

I also love the fact that there is no punctuation. I can imagine the rambling thoughts of a dying person being just like this, and stopping in mid-thought, as all of these do.

All-in-all, this is a brilliant little book, and highly recommended.

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