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Tragicomedy for Today: Ling Ma’s novel Severance is about more than a pandemic

By Alexander Voisine

I picked up Ling Ma’s satirical science fiction novel, Severance, at a Washington, D.C. bookstore last summer, eons ago, when the idea of a massive pandemic was still purely cinematic, marketed for consumption, marginalized to fictitious accounts of a world falling apart, and enjoyed from the safety of a living room that you can leave or stay in as you please. I had left zombie-apocalyptic novels in the bookshelves of my youth, back when there was still the possibility of imagining worlds of fantasy and magic and adventure and dystopia, long before high school and college literature classes rewrote my taste in reading away from the unreal and towards the well-structured, the allegorical, the lived, and the observable.

There was something about Severance though. Maybe it was how it was described as an apocalyptic office novel, a treatise on the millennial condition, that spanned this dissonance between a genre marked as kitschy and whimsical and the genres marked as tastefully thoughtful. Maybe it was the awards it had won, the publications that had endorsed it, the staffs who had picked it that made it seem more credible. Maybe it was the way the book felt in my hands.

Whatever it was, I read it, and fell in love with it, on a decrepit balcony in a tiny D.C. apartment, sweating in the swamp humidity as I went page by page. The book follows Candace, an ex-Visual Studies major who takes a job as the “Senior Product Coordinator of the Bibles Division” at a corporate publishing company, a position her boss describes as “not about art appreciation” but instead about “project management…logistics…making sure the right people have the right information at the right time.” With this job, Candace joins the ranks of a generation of educated young people shilled into the world of supply chains and bottom lines.

Candace’s life is grim and regular. She lives in a tiny Brooklyn apartment. She passes through a pair of sad boy lovers. She is repelled and comforted by the monotony of her job. She has a blog. She seems to be living an eternal iteration of Esther Greenwood’s turbulent summer in New York City in Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar; cynical and submissive, pining for an escape but conforming nevertheless.

Her doldrum life is nudged, ever so slightly, when a pervasive fungal infection—the Shen Fever—begins to take over the world, from production facilities in China’s claustrophobic special economic zones to the exposed brick lofts and post-fab penthouses of Manhattan. The Shen Fever is trippy; its later-stage symptoms include “malnourishment, lapse of hygiene, bruising of the skin, impaired motor coordination” and ultimately “results in a fatal loss of consciousness,” the latter of which euphemistically refers to, in public health-speak, the fact that everyone ends up devolving into an endless, zombie-like state of routine, serving dinner until the body decays, watching commercials until the body decays, watering plants until the body decays. The Shen Fever is, in effect, death by repetition, sucking the spontaneity out of the brain’s cells until all that remains is the comfort of familiar motions.

As New York City disintegrates around her—as cranes fall off of buildings, as people pack up and leave for Connecticut, as “fevered” taxi drivers swim through the streets like automatons—Candace also devolves into her routine, virtually unbothered and technically unfevered. She commutes from Brooklyn to Manhattan every day, sits at her desk, tries to fulfill orders for the publishing company, responds to emails, and repeats. The office is kept open, her supervisor telling her that “this is partly an optics issue. It gives our clients confidence that we’re still open when our competitors have closed their offices.”

Candace’s parents are both dead, her boyfriend has left the city, she appears to have no friends, and she can’t seem to find anything to fill her free time, aside from a blog about New York City’s ghostly streets. Her job is both the heartbeat that gives her life and the identity that gives her life meaning. She dreams about her work and her dreams are her work.

It is also revealed that Candace is pregnant by her vagabond boyfriend, sad boy number 2, and one of the few people in the book who appears to reject death by corporation, and who Candace resents and envies, at one point telling him “five years of watching you live this way has changed me. In this world, money is freedom. Opting out is not a real choice.”

Ultimately Candace is picked up by a group of the few survivors that remain, who abandon the East Coast for salvation in the Midwest, a Joseph Smith-esque journey where the cult leader is Bob, an ex-IT consultant who leads his pack of followers with an iron first, authoritarian in its masculine unflinchingness, Trumpian in its inner weakness. The group’s American Zion is the mysterious “Facility,” which ends up being a shopping mall in suburban Illinois. Upon arriving, for misbehaving, Candace is locked in an abandoned L’Occitane en Provence, where she dreams of escape and of her mother, listening to Bob pace the linoleum floor like a sentry, quarantined among endless shelves of fragrances and hand creams.

I reread Severance recently, in light (in spite?) of COVID-19 and in search of a book that could maybe coalesce the millions of thoughts running through my head, or that could at least scrape me away from the din of Instagram influencers with their picturesque breakfasts, and from emails and from online sales and advertisements, at least for a sweet moment.

The book didn’t hit any differently than it did when I was curled up on a broken plastic chair a year ago, before a cough was a gunshot and a $1,300 stimulus check a lifeline. Described recently as the book that predicted COVID-19 and the book that saw it coming I am left wondering if it really did predict anything, or if it simply described a moment in time that was just as real before COVID-19 as it is during, and that will probably be just as real after COVID-19.

“Predict” implies that something unforeseen was envisioned before it happened. The genius of Severance is not its prescience, but its scathing depiction of a reality that was glaringly clear. Any parallels drawn between Severance and COVID-19 ignore the fact that Severance isn’t about a pandemic, but rather about immigration, hyper-consumerism, work, supply chains, a willing blindness to the exploitation of workers, and loneliness. Perhaps the same can be said about COVID-19.

As Keeanga-Yamhatta Taylor wrote in The New Yorker, “when things are turned upside down, the bottom is brought to the surface and exposed to the light.” The bottom that Ma depicts has always been there, and in fact is still there. One of the components of this bottom that Ma writes about is global supply chains. In Severance, supply chains are depended upon, like veins pushing blood to a heart. Before Shen Fever, Candace argues with a client, who is frustrated with delays in the mass production of a gemstone-clad Bible marketed to preteen girls:

This doesn't have anything to do with the Shen Fever thing 
that's been in the news, does it?
This is unrelated, I confirmed. This is a matter of workers' 
rights and safety. The gemstone granules are tearing up their 
lungs. That's why it's a particularly urgent matter.
A silence at the other end of the line.
I mean, they're dying, I clarified. The supplier is putting all 
its contract jobs on hold. Hello?
Finally she spoke, slowly and stiffly.
I don't want to sound like we don't care, obviously we do, but 
this is disappointing news.

Candace is torn between the ethics of what she does and the knowledge she has about the impacts of her work. She juggles what she’s been taught in school about exploitation and special economic zones, with how she’s now become “a part of it,” repeating to herself that she’s just “doing her job.” She represents entire generations of young people who have graduated into a world that they’ve been told to change, but who depend on vacuous jobs for healthcare, stability, student loans, and rent. As Jia Tolentino writes in her book of essays, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, “It would be better, of course, to do things morally. But who these days has the ability or the time?”

For Candace, her relationship with global supply chains is especially fraught because she was born in China. When she travels to Hong Kong and later Shenzen on a business trip, where the Shen Fever started, she rekindles a relationship with a country that she remembers but was taught to forget, by her immigrant parents who imposed English upon her and encouraged her to assimilate, knowing that assimilation in the U.S. means relinquishing. She jokes with a Chinese factory owner about how American children are fat and greedy and then goes shopping in Hong Kong for designer clothes, made cheap by U.S. dollars. She tenderly recalls her summers in Fuzhou and then ducks inside a 7-Eleven in Hong Kong “for reprieve,” pacing “up and down tidy aisles, stocked with American products in Asian flavors.”

Candace’s life is, in some ways, a supply chain, with its transnational stages of production and consumption and the discomfiting feeling of being, to borrow from the Chicano movement—ni de aquí ni de allá, neither from here nor from there—sort of like the products she sells. And yet even for those born and raised in one country, there’s a resonance to Candace’s life that bespeaks the pervasiveness of globalization, how it reaches out and touches everyone, chaining us all together in one long line of consumption.

Like a global supply chain, Severance is preoccupied with brands. When Candace sees two decaying victims of Shen Fever, they are not decomposing in armchairs, but La-Z-Boy recliners. She drinks not from a bottle of water, but from a Poland Spring bottle of water. Her Facility cohort doesn’t miss fast food, but “those square burgers at Wendy’s.” Products are more than referents for Candace, they are pegs to grab onto as the world putrefies.

In the midst of such deep cynicism, destruction, and anxiety, Severance is also masterfully hilarious. Candace jokes that she will tell her boyfriend that he got her pregnant with a text reading “I’m pregnant, it’s yours, lolz.” When hurricane Mathilde hits around the same time that Shen Fever begins to spread in New York, and Netflix launches a Twitter challenge, Candace narrates in tweets: “Watching twister during #netflixstorm cuz I’m basic” and “#Mathilde is mother nature’s wrath for airing Jersey Shore #netflixstorm.”

Humor, interspersed with tragedy, is perhaps the most poignant overlap between the book and COVID-19, and the media-scaped world that it thrives in: reading about an exploding COVID-19 death rate and the Trump administration’s bungling response then watching a TikTok with some preteen screaming; the killings of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor mixed in with a tweet about Pete Buttigieg’s hobbit haircut. When the world bares down with the weight of a thousand tragedies that we feel too small to withstand, let alone resist, we search for solace in memes, products, routines and, not at all infrequently, listlessness.

Severance, perhaps strategically, doesn’t offer any answers. It’s not a guidebook about how to survive the isolation of COVID-19. If anything, it will make you feel more anxious, more helpless, more aware of the burning desire for a different world and of what arriving at that new world will entail, what will have to be severed in the process, what links in the chain can be broken—what links in the chain we’re willing to break.

Ma sums all this up well when Candace, in her characteristic apathy, contemplates #mathilde, applicable as well to #ShenFever, and, I would add, by virtue, COVID-19:

“We all hoped the storm would knock things over, fuck things up enough but not too much. We hoped the damage was bad enough to cancel work the next morning but not so bad that we couldn’t go to brunch instead.”

~~~

Severance

by Ling Ma

Farrar, Straus and Giroux $26

~~~

Alexander Voisine is a master’s student at the Universidad Nacional Autonóma de México in Mexico City, where he’s studying international relations and migration, on a Fulbright grant. He’s an avid reader of fiction and poetry, a dedicated city walker, and a lover of espresso and Björk. For tweets about migration, books and his writing: @alex_voisine

I'm a writer, editor, and blogger. My fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in CutBank, Sou'wester, Flock literary journal and elsewhere and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. My (nonfiction) articles and profiles appear in university magazines and other nonprofit publications. I earned an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and am the associate editor of Parhelion Literary Magazine out of Richmond. An Ohio native, I am at work on a novel and short stories set in the Rust Belt, and I hype the literary voices of my fellow native Midwesterners at my blog, Rust Belt Girl.

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