October 2006

Justin Taylor


Severance: Stories by Robert Olen Butler

Severance, the latest from FC2 board member Robert Olen Butler, follows in what can fairly be called his "tradition" of thematically-driven short story collections. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, fifteen stories exploring the experiences of Vietnamese-Americans living in New Orleans, won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. 1996 saw Tabloid Dreams, a collection of stories based on real tabloid headlines ("Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed," etc.), then in 2004 he delivered Had A Good Time: Stories From American Postcards, which I imagine pretty much explains itself. (Butler is also the author of ten novels and a nonfiction book on writing, but we're here to talk about short stories today, so if you want to know about that stuff you're going to have to Google him.)

Severance, published first in French last year as Mots de tete, draws inspiration from what the book jacket calls "two seemingly unrelated facts." The first: "After decapitation, the human head is believed to remain in a state of consciousness for one and one-half minutes." The second: "In a heightened state of emotion, people speak at the rate of 160 words per minute." (Italics in original.) Well it isn't quite Oulipian, but it is pretty neat. If you work it out, you get 240 words for the just-beheaded to voice their final thoughts, and so, naturally, every story in the book is exactly that long. Of course the sentient head is, in all circumstances here considered, disconnected from the vocal cords, but let's not be jerks about it. The sixty-two short-shorts which comprise this book are gritty stream-of-consciousness eruptions, borderline prose-poems, and certainly they are thought rather than spoken, though the image of all these severed heads noiselessly mouthing their soliloquies is creepily thrilling.

Organized chronologically, Butler starts with "Mud," a Northern European caveman beheaded by a saber-toothed tiger circa 40,000 BC, then jumps ahead to 2000 BC where Medusa, just beheaded by Perseus, complains that "that bitch Athena thinks her temple defiled but it was he [Poseidon] who came to me and leaned his trident upon her marble face dripped upon her floor, she tries to hurt me but I love my living hair these serpents whisper when men come close each strand with a split tongue hissing my desire for them…" This passage is emblematic of both the tone and content of the book at large. Butler's decapitees -- which in addition to the above-mentioned also include real historical figures, Bible characters, a chicken, and the author himself (beheaded "on the job," 2008) -- tend not to speak toward the circumstances of their demise, or else they do so indirectly. They often dwell on childhood, some keynote sexual experience, or, in the case of several religious fanatics of various creeds, the Reward toward which they are headed, or all of these. The stories are less farewell addresses than life-flashing-before-eyes distillations, low-punctuation riffs on the variety of human experience boiled down to its bright essence at the moment of that light's snuffing.

Some of the more intriguing historical murders: a Mayan ball player is ritually sacrificed after his team loses (800), a Russian Jew is killed in a pogrom (1905), a Chinese boy is executed by his own government for keeping correspondence with an American woman (1882), a shipmaster and companion of Paul is mistaken for the apostle and executed by Roman soldiers (67). Accidents, mostly induced by mechanical or technological failures, increase as we move forward in time (big ups to Paul Virilio). There are multiple elevator-induced decapitations, Jayne Mansfield talks us through her car accident, a homeless man uses an Amtrak train for a guillotine, the 2003 Staten Island ferry crash takes off a commuter’s head, a systems analyst is beheaded when the south tower of the World Trade Center collapses.

Grimly amusing are these two paired narratives: that of the dragon beheaded by St. George with George's own (he was beheaded by the emperor Diocletian two years later); and that of one Maisie Hobbs of Mississippi, and her lover, Earl Daggett, both beheaded by Maisie’s husband.

Though he globe-trots effectively, Butler is also willing to linger in one place or period when it suits him. Among the first ten beheaded are John the Baptist and the apostles Matthew and Paul (they found the right guy, eventually, and killed him too). A half-dozen English historical figures are taken out between the years 1535 and 1618: Lord Chancellor Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, Mary Stuart, Walter Raleigh; but the French revolution does much better: a half dozen French are guillotined in a mere two years (1793-4). Elsewhere, Vietnam, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Japan, and Burkina Faso are all represented, though the USA dominates the back half of the book, with Americans accounting for seventeen of the last thirty-one entries, starting with "Jacob," a Georgia slave ("…sky going hot as a bullwhip lash behind me the hounds calling I am running hard through corn row and forest…") beheaded by his master after a failed escape attempt. The chicken I mentioned earlier is served for dinner in Alabama, 1958. In California, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson thinks a lot about legs and about running. “I run easily with the question what can I be,” she says, “I think to try to run and he rushes up fast and I can see what’s tucked there in the crook of his arm and it is me, it is my head, an I stare into my own eyes and I know the answer always was his wife.” So much for the real killers, eh Robert?

As is to be expected, some of these pieces are more successful than others. Sometimes Butler relies too heavily on the archetypes and clichés of the various cultures explored, or falls into corniness, as when the aforementioned dinner chicken imagines its passage from life to death as crossing a road. At his best, the heavy erotic overtones of the stories infuse with fresh energy what might otherwise be tired commentary on the close working relationship that sex enjoys with death. At his worst, you may be given to wonder why Butler’s women seem less concerned about the holes in their necks than the ones between their legs, though the same critique could be levied against most of their executioners, which is maybe the point.

Severance: Stories by Robert Olen Butler
Chronicle Books
ISBN: 0811856143
263 Pages

Justin Taylor is the Books Editor for Econoculture.com and the editor of The Apocalypse Reader (Thunder’s Mouth, June 2007). Read more of his work at http://www.justindtaylor.net/