The Beheaded Sixty-two

The conceit of Severance, a short story collection by Robert Olen Butler, lies in the fusion of two seemingly unrelated quotes [nearly a century apart]: [01] “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; and [02] “In a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute.” – Dr. Emily Reasoner, A Sourcebook for Speech, 1975.

From these, Butler created 62 stories of 240 words each, featuring a survey of characters—ranging between historical, fictional-historical, and pure whimsy—who meet their death by decapitation.

The first story is a man, beheaded by a saber-toothed tiger [you figure out the logistics], circa 40,00 BC. Immediately follows Medusa, whose death-monologue is as sexy and powerful and with her wretchedly unjust fate—just as we imagine her myth to be, only intensified, because this is her fading. See:

One story after another: real people, imagined people, fictions tacked on to historical figures—Butler touches on 62 of them, manages to capture each of their lives during those last ninety disembodied conscious seconds.

Reading Severance was amazing—even if I had to stop myself from reading them all in one go lest they fall into a particular Achilles’ heel of It’s All Starting to Sound the Same. And so I took it slow, and I had to. The pieces read like prose poetry—lyrical, rich, feverish. An undercurrent of tenderness, too, and sexuality—not so much doom. Here are very revealing [fictionalized] portraits—of the characters, of their circumstances, of their preoccupations, and their desires. Each story manages to be intimate, each story manages to stand as a distinct, if characteristic, voice.

Here, an enchantress beheaded by the Knight of the Two Swords: the Lady of the Lake thinks deep of Merlin, intones, “. . .and it grows in my hand and hardens into steel and its torn root heals into hilt and pommel and I dive deep into my black water where I will wait his summons and I call his sword Excalibur.” Oh my goodness, me.

Leap forward a couple of centuries onto another continent: Ah Balam, Mayan ballplayer, beheaded by custom as captain of losing team—he knows decapitation is his fate. There’s something stirring about his calm and steely gaze at the other team making a goal: “. . .and Ah Tabai behind me cries like the macaw and the ball slips low from him past my shoulder and caroms from the right wall and Ah Peku himself is running already for a mighty hip shot and I see our ancestors the first men on earth playing ball with the Lords of Death and even as Ah Peku flies toward the hanging ball I know I will end headless like the first men, my hands, useless in this game, tremble, but my heart is ready the ball flies up and through the circle.

A Chinese woman’s last thoughts skip to her mother “singing prayers to Kuan Yin the goddess of mercy, not to spare me a life a pain but to wither my feet to perfection, the mercy of the golden lotus,” and finally fades to, “. . .and hands push me down my neck made bare and I cry please, before my head cut off my feet.

For something so morbid upon first glance, my god, Butler just weaves so much beauty in these soliloquies. Vignettes of rolling heads, still not sightless—it’s a gruesome image, but there’s so much grace in these thoughts, so much life artfully rushing to the surface.

Methinks, this shall stand as one of my favorites so far.

Oh. There’s also a chicken, beheaded in Alabama for dinner, 1958.

** A truncated version of Severance [Severance, severance, severance—even that sharp-tap-then-sliver of the word is a perfect title!] is available from Google Books. See there, too, its thoughtful design—form meets content/concept!

I got my copy of Severance [PhP625] from National Bookstore. You can go to the link, or try the Cubao branch, where I saw a handful.

Reading Begets Reading – I very much want to read Butler’s Intercourse, another themed short story collection—this time, it’s a brief peek into the sex lives of historical figures. Orayt. From what I gather, they’re parallel thoughts printed on opposite pages. From Adam and Eve, onwards. Mmm-hmmm.

6 thoughts on “The Beheaded Sixty-two

  1. This sounds really neat. I actually have a Butler lined up to read soon (Hell) but I will have to look into this in the future.

    1. Seriously one of the best things I’ve read lately. And the format, its physicality, it’s just gorgeous and well thought-out. Have fun with Hell! [That sounds weird, but it’s an earnest wish, haha.]

  2. I read this years ago and I agree it’s amazing. One of the best themed collections I have read. I mean, it’s too easy for th writer to make it seem like he’s practicing writing while assembling these kinds of things. R.O.B. was great, individual stories and the bigger picture.

    I also googled a lot of the headless people haha. :-)

    1. Thanks, Parker. I did have the urge to Google all of them, but, ya know, I’m happy enough with Butler’s fictionalizing most of the characters. I do wonder, though, how it began. I mean, yes, those two factoids are up there, but I can’t help but think that even before teh story collection formed for the theme, some of the individual stories must have been a relief to write, even if the condensed and vivid and concentrated monologues posed a challenge.

      Good lord, that ramble made no sense.


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