Choosing sixty-two beheaded subjects, some historical, some mythological, some playful, some serious, Butler has created sixty-two 240-word short-short stories, sometimes called flash fiction, yet these pieces have the density and intensity of prose poems, and, with their exact word length, the formality of sonnets.
It hardly needs saying that life after death is a subject of widespread and enduring interest. People spend a considerable portion of their threescore and ten wondering about eternity, heaven, hell, limbo, purgatory, nirvana, paradise staffed with virgins, etc., etc.
There is also a lot of interest in the life immediately after death. The fiction writer Ambrose Bierce experimented with this idea in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." In that story, the protagonist, a man about to be hanged, narrates his rescue, but the rescue turns out to be the post-neck-snapping activity of the not-yet-quite-dead brain.
Dr. Raymond Moody had a big success with Life After Death, a compendium of presumably factual accounts of people who were technically "dead," floated up out of their bodies, entered a long white tunnel, perhaps saw a figure robed in white, but then were resuscitated and reported back from that land from which travelers are not supposed to report back.
But drowning, drug overdose, reaction to anesthesia, high voltage shock?these are one category. Decapitation is quite another matter. No one reports back after having his head cut off.
Robert Olen Butler meditates on decapitation in his new book, Severance. Butler is still not a household name in Alabama in spite of being married to the Birmingham novelist Elizabeth Dewberry, author of four novels including Many Things Have Happened Since He Died and, most recently, His Lovely Wife. He has published thirteen volumes of fiction and has won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection of stories set in Louisiana and Vietnam, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.
Butler quotes Dr. Dassy D'Estaing, who wrote in 1883, "After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation." (No details are given as to how Dr. D'Estaing reached this conclusion.) Butler also cites Dr. Emily Reasoner in A Sourcebook of Speech (1975): "In a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute."
So, Butler reasons, if the severed head could speak, it would have time to utter 240 words before its final mortality overtook it. Choosing sixty-two beheaded subjects, some historical, some mythological, some playful, some serious, Butler has created sixty-two 240-word short-short stories, sometimes called flash fiction, yet these pieces have the density and intensity of prose poems, and, with their exact word length, the formality of sonnets. There is not much plot or character development. This is not page-turning escapist fiction.
The newly deceased, whose streams of final consciousness we are reading, have different responses at their moments of death. A man named Mud is "beheaded by a saber-toothed tiger, circa 40,000 BC" and remembers the starving time when his group turned to cannibalism.
Some newly beheaded remember pleasant moments. The Roman orator-politician Cicero, beheaded 43 BC by order of Antony, recalls an early speech, his mother in the crowd. Marie Antoinette, the unhappy French queen, beheaded 1793, remembers a peaceful moment from childhood, with her mother, her father, and her pets.
St. Paul (Saul of Tarsus), beheaded by Nero 67 AD, flashes back to his conversion experience on the road to Damascus: "I am at the center of a flame and I am tumbling down I am on my knees I lift my face to see her and instead I hear a voice, a man, and I understand."
One of the decapitated is Chicken, an Alabama pullet beheaded for Sunday dinner, 1958. Chicken recalls tasty bugs, and following after his mom, who is on the other side of the road. The entry ends, "I cross." Now we know why.
Historically, the beheadings seem to come in clusters. Henry VIII provided a good many?Thomas More and several royal wives. The French Reign of Terror made famous use of the guillotine. Several victims are beheaded by angry spouses. Jayne Mansfield, decapitated in a car crash, recalls a moment of innocence with her father when she was still just little Vera Jayne Palmer.
Butler closes in a truly macabre fashion, with his own decapitation, which he dates 2008 and which occurs in a hotel elevator on a book tour. As he says, he dies on the job.
P.S. It was Neil Sedaka, not Paul Anka. I was wrong. I'm sorry.