- Hardcover: 264 pages
- Publisher: Chronicle Books; First Edition edition (August 10, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0811856143
- ISBN-13: 978-0811856140
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 7.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 18 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #495,748 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Severance: Stories Hardcover – August 10, 2006
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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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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One thing has left me wondering about this premise of 90 seconds of consciousness claimed by Dr. Dassy D’Estaing (1883). Who is this doctor? I could find nothing online about D’Estaing and this theory or how he came to his conclusion. If anyone here can confirm valid information about D’Estaing, please post. That said, this extraordinary little adventure into the last thoughts of the newly dead has a sense of absurd beauty.
From Chin Chin Chan beheaded for "maintaining a romatic correspondence with an American girl ...": "moon no longer a blossom a pearl a lantern in a lover's door but a bodiless face, mine, in a train window, she on the platform trying not to look at me directly, as if she were there for someone selse, and the train hurtles in the dark and I stare into the stars and not even a poet could find the moon in this sky no even Li Po in a boat with quill and ink ..." Wonderful.
However, some story/poems I had trouble linking to the individual speaking because I knew too little about their lives to make the pieces fit. It was not the the characters were too obscure; rather that the pieces (rightly) focused on parts of their lives not taught in history books. Given the author's ability to provide sufficient background in many entries, this is not a failure of the form but a failure either of the reader or author. Labeling them prose poems would warn the reader that this stories require the close reading given poems not the casual reading often given prose.
Based on these premises, Butler creates a series of stories that represent the thoughts of real people who have been decapitated and their thoughts in the 90 seconds following that decapitation. These people are in fact real people who had been decapitated. Most of them were decapitated via the guillotine. Some of the people Butler portrays in the book are as follows: Marie Antoinette, King Louis the XVI, Jayne Mansfield, John the Baptist, The Apostle Paul, Sir Thomas More, Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots, Robespierre, Robert Kornbluth, Nicole Brown Simpson and many more.
Each story is exactly 240 words; representing the amount of words that would be spoken in 90 seconds, post decapitation. The stories are in essence the distillation of an entire lifetime, through the eyes of the deceased person. The elements of their life that are of significance to the victim are presented by Butler to the reader.
The book is experimental in its form. And the creation of the stories and their content are uniquely fascinating. Butler has in fact created a truly brilliant concept in this book. The people are mostly recognizable by name, but also Butler gives a very brief comment on each one of them indicating who they were. The book is highly recommended for readers who enjoy unusual and expertly written short stories with a surreal content that tickles the imagination. Severance is truly a cerebral experience for those readers who wish to be intrigued by what might flash before a person's eyes upon the knowledge that their death is imminent.