Severance: The Problem with "Conceptual" Fiction

I take special delight in happenstance book acquisitions. For instance, this week I found myself on the campus of the University of Central Florida, in their bookshop--"book"-shop being a bit of a stretch, since the store was more like what one finds in so-called "Christian bookstores;" namely, an overwhelming amount of logo-emblazoned merchandise with a few books hidden in the corner. In any event, one doesn't come to the campus of the University of Central Florida expecting much in the way of intellectual stimulation. But passing some time, I did find a bargain bin and hit upon a wonderful little surprise: Robert Olen Butler's 2006 experiment, Severance--an irregular sized offering from Chronicle Books, in a squat edition with blackened and deckled pages (the materiality, I think, being integral to the book's experimentality).

The book could be described as a concept-driven collection of "stories" which feel more like stream-of-consciousness poems, a sort of prose haiku. And the concept that drives them is the product of a morbid mathematics. This is staged by two "epigraphs" which, it turns out, are essential to the performance of the book:

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

Coupling these two "facts" or hypotheses, Olen undertakes his experiment: to narrate the last 240 words worth of consciousness of severed heads across history, from Mud, a man beheaded by a sabertooth tiger, 40,000BC to Tyler Alkins, a civilian truck driver beheaded by insurgents in Iraq, 2004. In between we hear the sentient last-moment ramblings of St. Valentine and Marie Antoinette and Nicole Brown, along with a host of "unknowns" variously decapitated by elevators, executioners, and jealous husbands, sons, and even daughters.

Like alot of movie trailers and Will Ferrell films, the idea is better than the execution. (One might even have reservations about the concept insofar as it feels like publishing the fruits of what could be an outstanding creative writing exercise, but not necessarily a book of stories.) Granted, some of the pieces are exquisite (such as the last thoughts of St. Valentine or Claude Messner, a homeless man decapitated by an Amtrak train in 2000). The stories jolt from very different contexts and take up different voices, and suffused through most is a kind of eroticism (perhaps growing from a Freudian assumption about links between sex and death). And Butler is a master of language: attention to rhythm and lexicon gives these "stories" their poetic feel.

But at the same time, the collection suffers on two counts:

First, from the very first story, I found myself perturbed by the matter of voice. (It's James Wood who taught me to ask these questions of a story.) For instance, right out of the gate there's prehistoric man, thinking his last thoughts in English, and with a pretty decent vocabulary at that. Throughout the collection, while Butler at times tries to get closer to the voice of his lolling heads, it always feels like--all of a sudden, having been severed from their bodies--all heads become poets.

Second, the stories actually shrink from the concept. In almost every case, with only a few exceptions, what we get is not the 90 seconds of consciousness after the guillotine drops, but more like the 87 seconds just before the slice, with a blip after words. And oddly, almost all of these last glimmers of consciousness turn out to offer replays of the life that has preceded them (think of Lester Burnham's final musing after the gunshot in American Beauty). But this feels like both a cliche and a cheat. One wonders whether the head in the bucket, instead of recalling glistening wheatfields in the Kansas sun, doesn't--oddly and tragically enough--worry about whether it left the stove on that morning.