Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Despite having won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for one of his earlier books, Robert Olen Butler is relatively little-known outside of the US: his last few books haven't even been published in the UK/Commonwealth.
Between more conventional novels, he likes to set himself odd challenges for short story collections: each of the tales in Tabloid Dreams was inspired by a headline from one of America's weirder tablouids ('Ghost of Titanic Survivor Found in Waterbed'), while each story in Had a Good Time takes as its inspiration the message scribbled on one of the circa-1900 postcards Butler has been collecting over the years.
Severance was inspired by two "facts": that a cleanly severed head might remain alive and conscious for up to 90 seconds (though I believe in reality it's more like 30 seconds), and that in states of heightened anxiety, people speak at 160 words per minute. From this, Butler has written a number of stories narrated by the just-beheaded, each 240 words long.
The stories take in the range of human history, from 40,000 BC to Butler's own predicted decapitation in 2008, and the voices are from numerous eras and places (with two understandable clusters around the times of the Tudors and and the French Revolution).
It's a great idea which has produced a great collection of stories. Even better, the book itself (published by Chronicle Books, better known for both art and gift books than fiction) has been elegantly and appropriately designed: not just the cover but the interior as well. (Click for bigger images.)
Each story starts with slashed white text on black...
..and continues with the text itself shaped like a cleaver. Even the page numbers are designed appropriately (see the inner bottom corner).
The nice final touch is that the pages themselves have been very roughly guillotined, and the alternating black and white pages protrude raggedly as a result.
Credit where it's due: the cover photo is by Kevyan Behpour, while the the jacket and book design are by Brooke Johnson.