book banter: Severance

Severance, Robert Olen ButlerSeverance

Robert Olen Butler


Severance is one of the most unique books I’ve ever read. In fact, it’s a little creepy. The premise is based on two scientific theories: 1) that a person’s head remains conscious for one and a half minutes after decapitation and 2) that humans speak at the rate of 160 words per minute when they’re in a heightened state of emotion. These two theories indicate that a person who is decapitated might think 240 words before they’re completely dead. Based on this figure, Butler has written a series of short (240 words each, to be precise) monologues of decapitated people, fictional and non-fictional. These monologues are presented in chronological order, starting with Mud (“man, beheaded by saber-toothed tiger, circa 40,000 B.C.”) all the way through the author himself (“writer, decapitated on the job, 2008”). Fortunately, Robert Olen Butler was not decapitated in 2008—that would’ve just been too weird.

The book is interesting especially because of the glimpse it gives you into the lives of famous characters you’ll recognize: Medusa, John the Baptist, George (AND the dragon), the lady of the lake, Marie Antoinette, and so on. I’m mostly intrigued by the format of these monologues. I’ve never heard of a book quite like this and I’m always impressed with books that are out of the norm.

I doubt, however, that I’ll read the book again. It was entertaining and engaging, but not something I would gain insight from by reading it another time. I definitely think it’s an interesting read, but I’d suggest borrowing it from the library rather than buying it.