Robert Olen Butler: Severance

in Reviews

By Lucie Horáková

Butler’s Severance is an unexpected take on the format of a short story collection. It contains sixty one very short texts that all adhere to some rather specific rules. Each short story has exactly 240 words. Why? Because Butler used some interesting facts as his starting point. First, “After decapitation, the human head is believed to remain in a state of consciousness for one and one-half minutes.” And second: “In a heightened state of emotion, people speak at the rate of 160 words per minute.” This suggests that a decapitated head should be able to deliver a 240-word-long inner soliloquy and this is the content of Butler’s short story collection – sixty one 240-word-long inner monologues inside various severed heads.

For arranging his collection, Butler chose strictly chronological approach. He starts off with what runs through the head of Mud, a “man, beheaded by saber-toothed tiger, circa 40,000 B.C.” In the first text, Butler establishes his main tool of the trade – capturing a stream of consciousness. This gives him the freedom to write in hints and leaves much of the interpretation of the texts on readers. After the first reading, some of the texts resemble only incomprehensible mess, but given more time and contemplation, they start to fit together and reveal a message. The first decapitated character of the book, the aforementioned Mud, is of course a fictional one. But this is not the case with all the people, or – to be more precise – beings in the book. Starting way in the pre-historic era, Butler moves on the age of antiquity, where he reveals the last thoughts of such well-known personas as Cicero, John the Baptist, Messalina or apostle Matthew. Later on, he picks other well-known heads from British history and when he approaches the time of the French revolution, it is a literal head-harvest.  

But not only real historical figures appear in Butler’s collection. The author decided to include mythical creatures as well, so the readers can read the mind of the famous Medusa, the dragon slain by St. George or even look into the mind of the infamous Lady of the Lake. The closer the author gets to our times, the more culturally varied his characters are: he offers insights from not only European and American heads, but also from inhabitants of Vietnam, Japan, Iraq, Burkina Faso or Israel. This makes his work an interesting cultural tour and Butler manages to create a perfectly humane portrayal of each and every one of his literary victims in his book.

The biggest challenge Butler had to face while composing his audacious collection was to make each text absolutely unique. With such a number of unstructured soliloquies, it might have been very easy to get repetitive and confuse or even bore the readers. Luckily, Butler is such a skilled and experienced writer this is not the case. He managed to give each of his characters a distinctive voice and a story to remember. And the most daring piece of text he left to the very end – the last severed head is his own. The author of this review is pleased to say that it was the cherry on top of the deliciously heady meal Butler prepared.

Robert Olen Butler, born in 1945 in Illinois, USA, is a prolific writer and teacher. So far he has written more than ten novels and six short story collections, and has gained several literary awards, the most important being a 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his short story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Originally a theatre major, Butler joined the Vietnam War efforts and become a special agent and a translator for the counter-intelligence. This experience, alongside with the various jobs that ensued, formed and inspired his writings and gained him a Tu Do Chinh Kien Award for “outstanding contributions to American culture by a Vietnam veteran“.

Apart from being an acclaimed author of fiction, Butler is also famous for his support of creative writing. He teaches Creative writing at Florida State University and published a collection of his lectures on this topic called From Where You Dream. His greatest achievement in this field is, however, his short story This is Earl Sandt the whole creation of which- from the initial idea to the final editing – was recorded and posted online as a webcast. In the broadcast author explained every aspect of writing this particular short story and also answered questions posted by the audience. The whole webcast, called Inside Creative Writing can be found on Youtube.