You know how sometimes we read books to escape the anxiety and dread of real life? Well, ‘Severance’ by Ling Ma is not for that. I found it impossible to ease the weight of the daily gloom from our real global pandemic by reading a novel that includes an even deadlier fictional one.
Here’s the cover:
Candace Chen is one of the last survivors of a plague that’s like Covid-19 on steroids. ‘Shen Fever’ originated in Shenzhen, China, and it is transmitted via fungal spores. There is no cure. It turns people into a kind of zombie; the ‘fevered,’ as they are called, are doomed to a mindless existence performing rote tasks as they waste away and die. We meet Candace after she has fled New York City and hooked up with a handful of other survivors. They are on their way to Illinois, where a place called the ‘Facility’ promises refuge from the apocalypse. We see flashbacks of Candace’s pre-pandemic life during the journey. As a toddler, her parents emigrate from China to Utah, leaving her with relatives until they can afford to bring her over, too. As an adult, she works at a book-publishing house that produces copies of the Bible. She has a photo blog called NY Ghost. She dates her downstairs neighbor. She clings to her humdrum workaday commute despite the outbreak and past the point where the world falls completely apart. Before that, though, we also see her and others deliberate about whether masks are effective, including the N95 variety, whether working from home will affect productivity, whether it’s safer to leave New York and whether having people over to one’s apartment for social gatherings could spread the disease. This book was published in 2018, but it’s as if Ling Ma is a time traveler who came to warn us:
‘Severance’ was widely recommended back at the beginning of the pandemic when everyone was doing roundups of quarantine reads (even I did one) and exploring what literature could tell us about the ‘coronavirus era.’ But it was a hard book for me to get through, nearly two years into the crisis. Given the constant anxiety over whether we will see ‘normal’ times again, it was nearly impossible to suspend my disbelief. I kept thinking: ‘In this world, I am dead.’ Sometimes my mind would drift to wondering what rote task I would be performing at the end. Maybe I was feeding the cat or checking the mailroom for deliveries, or vacantly flipping through pages of books, or sitting at my desk typing and typing and typing. I did not look forward to reading this book before bed. Every time I picked it up, I was like:
This is not to say ‘Severance’ is bad. Far from it. Ma’s writing is fluid, and the story moves quickly. (I had only one nitpick: Ma doesn’t use quotation marks to offset speech. I am fine with this stylistic choice when it enhances the narrative, but it wasn’t necessary or helpful here.) And I like how she used the plague to critique our work culture, where we are all expected to keep going no matter what. I mean, that’s what we’re doing, right? It reminded me of the scene in Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ where laborers march unquestioningly into the maw of Moloch:
The novel had rare moments of joy, too. For example, there is a mention of ‘Avalon’ by Roxy Music, a song of personal significance to Donna and me; it was on our wedding playlist. ‘Severance’ is a powerful book about immigration, labor and surviving a pandemic, and there is plenty to be learned from it. But you should be in the right headspace before reading it.
How it begins:
After the End came the Beginning. And in the Beginning, there were eight of us, then nine—that was me—a number that would only decrease. We found one another after fleeing New York for the safer pastures of the countryside. We’d seen it done in the movies, though no one could say which one exactly. A lot of things didn’t play out as they had been depicted on-screen.
We were brand strategists and property lawyers and human resources specialists and personal finance consultants. We didn’t know how to do anything so we Googled everything. We Googled how to survive in wild, which yielded images of poison ivy, venomous insects, and bear tracks. That was okay but we wanted to know how to go on the offensive. Against everything. We Googled how to build fire and watched YouTube videos of fires being lit with flint against steel, with flint against flint, with magnifying glass and sun. We couldn’t find the requisite flint, didn’t know how to identify it even, and before we tried using Bob’s bifocals, someone found a Bic in a jean jacket. The fire brought us through the night and delivered us into a morning that took us to a deserted Walmart. We stockpiled bottled water and exfoliating body wash and iPods and beers and tinted moisturizer in our stolen Jeeps. In the back of the store we found guns and ammo, camo outfits, scopes and grips. We Googled how to shoot gun, and we tried, we were spooked by the recoil, by the salty smell and smoke, by the liturgical drama of the whole thing in the woods. But actually we loved to shoot them, the guns. We liked to shoot them wrong even, with a loose hand, the pitch forward and the pitch back. Under our judicious trigger fingers, beer bottles died, Vogue magazines died, Chia Pets died, oak saplings died, squirrels died, elk died. We feasted.
‘Severance’ by Ling Ma was published by Picador in 2018. 291 pages. $15.64 at Bookshop.org.
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Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #177
Thanks for the shoutout! Our friend and fellow book-newsletter writer Elizabeth was featured in a Substack newsletter about growing an audience. She included TWO BoG mentions in this Q&A. Thanks, Elizabeth!
Do this: Elizabeth also is running a fun paperback swap in February to help brighten an otherwise bleak winter. Sign up to send a paperback from your shelves to a random person, and get one in return! Click here for more info (scroll down that page for the details).
See this: I can’t wait for the TV adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s incredible novel ‘Pachinko’ to hit Apple TV+ on March 25. I love this tweet inspired by the release date details coming out.
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,
SPOILER THREAD: If you've read this book and want to discuss it, reply to this thread!
I really wish I read this before the pandemic instead of the summer of 2020. It would have been such a different experience.
Thanks for the shout outs and for being you.