From Publishers Weekly
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.)
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*Starred Review* No, this isn't about postemployment pay packages. Severanceis about the severing of heads from bodies. Butler is a commanding and ingenious writer with a love of high-concept undertakings--think Tabloid Dreams (1996) and Had a Good Time(2004). But even for Butler, this collection of unpunctuated prose poems is daring, a book based on two heretofore unrelated facts: theory has it that consciousness lasts for one and a half minutes after decapitation, and people can utter 160 words per minute when agitated. Butler did the math, so each spurt-of-consciousness story is 240 words long. And he did the research, unearthing 62 individuals who lost their heads in executions, at the hands of murderers (most often husbands), and in accidents (Jayne Mansfield). The results are compositions of disquieting beauty, cathartic wit, and transcendent empathy. Most of the decapitated men and women Butler portrays devote their last synaptic firings to memories of sensuous pleasure, while others, including Cicero and Marie Antoinette, return to childhood. The stories grow more viscerally disturbing as Butler moves forward in time. There's Nicole Brown Simpson, for example, and Tyler Alkins, the civilian truck driver beheaded in Iraq. Butler's singular perspective on human bloodshed and the power of the mind make Severance not only unique but also unforgettable. Donna Seaman
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