Adventures in Reading

Severance by Robert Olen Butler

Hi, my name is Bookchronicle and I have an addiction to the Magic Farm. Yes, I have been ensared by the attraction of a cheesey Yahoo! Game for roughly 75-hours and have neither read nor written anything. This is a perfect example why it is probably a good idea that I don’t have the Internet or television at home – without these items I (usually) get so much more done. However, despite my latest distraction of growing pixelated flowers (perhaps compensation for my lack of green thumb in my home garden?) I finally have finished Robert Olen Butler’s short story collection Severance.

After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation. – Dr. Dassy D’estaing, 1883

In a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute. – Dr. Emily Reasoner, A Sourcebook of Speech, 1975

The 62 stories in Severance are based on these two quotes. Sixty-two tales of decapitation as flashed through the head after being severed in exactly 240 words. The share brilliance and gumption of Butler’s Severance was more than enough to prod me into picking up the collection. The stories range from Medusa, St. Valentine, Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, a chicken, Yukio Mishima, and finally concludes with the author’s own decapitation. Olen is not only giving the reader a wonderful concept with engaging stories, but he is also attempting to express the history of humanity with the language and flow altering within every story.

On the book jacket, Dave Egger’s is quoted as saying “In concept, Severance is brilliant. In execution, it’s even better–beautiful, hilarious, horrifying, and humane.” And I mostly agree with Eggers but the execution of some of the stories I felt were shaky if not stale. Keep in mind though that Olen goes into this book with limitations and if you have ever attempted to write a precise amount of words, creatively or not, you quickly learn the worth of a single word. I cannot say that no story could not have used five more words or five fewer, but I do think Butler performed an admirable job when considering his objective.

However after saying this, some of the stories were astonishingly beautiful too. The first story in the collection that really moved me was “Ta Chin, Chinese wife, beheaded by her husband, 1838,” which is approximately half way into the collection. The last thoughts traverse Ta Chin’s childhood to the moment of decapitation when she reflects in her final eight words: “please, before my head cut off my feet.” The tale of “Paul Gorguloff, Russian immigrant to France, guillotined for assassinating French President Paul Doumer at charity book signing, 1932” made me want to reach for my history book. Within “Paul Gorguloff” Olen is a master at delivering a politcal sliver.

The stories read very poetically and use only the lone comma for punctuation. I found the lack of punctuation contributed to the complexity of the stories. When a period or dash or semi-colon is not present to tell you when to pause or stop a thought the reader is forced to start making these decisions. This was my first time reading Severance or anything by Butler, but I very much want to reread this collection and have eagerly been suggesting this to all of my fellow short story lovers.

Other opinions: books i done read


Very bizarre. I kind of need to read this.

Comment by raych

That sounds crazy-cool. And the front cover: creepy. I’ll definitely have to put this on my list.

Comment by Christine

It sounds intriguing and very original (and not for the squeamish and faint-hearted).

“growing pixelated flowers”—good one. :)

Comment by onlyanovel

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