Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Thursday, February 08, 2021

headstartI don’t suppose book publishing gets much more gimmicky than it does with Robert Olen Butler’s “Severance”.

The book is a collection of short stories. And I mean short — for a macabre reason:

Butler conceived of the idea after encountering a gruesome piece of trivia: that a human head is believed to continue in a state of consciousness for one and a half minutes after decapitation. Having then determined, from another source, that “in a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute,” Butler arrived at a new — and unlikely to be replicated — art form, the vignette of the severed head, told in exactly 240 words.

Not that Butler limited himself to human heads. Among his subjects are a dinnertable-destined chicken, a dragon, Medusa, and the Lady of the Lake. Not sure they’re entitled to the same wordcount as us regular folk, but I’ll let it slide.

Unfortunately, it looks like he got some bum information on the first part of that creepy equation:

After decapitation, consciousness remains in the severed head not for a minute and a half, as your reviewer explains Butler’s premise, but for about 30 seconds. In 1905, a French physician timed how long the eyes responded when he called the decapitated man’s name…

To appreciate the full pathos of Butler’s subjects, readers may want to pause at the end of the first 80 words, when the thinking has to stop. Beyond that lies only the author’s hope.

Maybe that’s what I should have done when I tore through the book over the last couple of days; I could have completed it in one sitting instead. The book’s physical size wouldn’t have changed — as it is, each story is self-contained within a single page (plus a preceding section cover page).

I don’t mean to imply that “Severance” wasn’t entertaining. I thought the stories for the Biblical figures (the apostles Paul and Matthew, and John the Baptist) were excellent, as was the one for the Lady in the Lake. And the inclusion of Nicole Brown Simpson was sly, as was Butler putting himself on the chopping block (fictionally) for the finale. But I agree with the Times review: The stream-of-consciousness motif resulted in an overbearing sameness, especially toward the end. It didn’t help that the author overreached on a few, trying to shoehorn the narrative of what led to the character’s death into what should be final, frenzied contemplation.

For those interested, this all has a Sunshine State connection. Butler lives in Capps, Florida (which I’ve never heard of), and is a professor at Florida State University (which I have heard of). Figures that something this kooky would come out of the F-L-A.

by Costa Tsiokos, Thu 02/08/2021 11:51:01 PM
Category: Florida Livin', Creative, Book Review | Permalink |

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  1. READING MR. THUNDERMUG…

    I’m on an oddball-lit kick of late. No sooner did I finish reading a collection of stories told by severed heads, than I picked up “Mr. Thundermug: A Novel”.
    What’s so odd about this book, by first-time author Cornelius Medvei? …

    Trackback by Population Statistic — 02/09/2021 @ 04:57:38 PM

  2. ROBERT OLEN BUTLER’S HEADGAMES…

    It’s hard to tell what Robert Olen Butler is more pissed off about these days:
    - That his wife, Elizabeth Dewberry, is leaving him to join Ted Turner’s girlfriend harem, or
    - That the mass email he sent out to announce this personal embarra…

    Trackback by Population Statistic — 08/01/2021 @ 09:40:40 PM

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