In a recent article for The Ringer, Jane Hu declares that “Severance Is the Novel of Our Current Moment — but Not for the Reasons You Think.” The piece convincingly lays out the problems with how critics and others have been discussing Ling Ma’s brilliantly conceived, rivetingly told, and unsettlingly prescient 2018 narrative in light of the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, it calls attention to many of the most striking elements of the book that have also gone largely under-discussed in this new round of reviews, think pieces, and so on. Because it resonates with our current crisis at all, many readers will probably want to wait until COVID-19 is firmly in our rearview before getting to it. For those made of sterner stuff, however, the book will, as Hu indicates, speak constructively to some important concerns and criticisms regarding the moment that we are in. Set in an alternate 2011 where Occupy Wall Street is interrupted by the end of the world, Severance is narrated by Candance Chen, an angsty, rudderless millennial and first-generation Chinese-American. She’s on the cusp of more than a few major life changes when an apocalyptic pandemic hits and (thanks to globalization) quickly decimates most of the world’s population. And “Shen Fever” is a particularly nasty customer at that: it not only renders the afflicted braindead but also causes them to mindlessly perform and re-perform, over and over again, various routines from daily life. That is, until they eventually expire, typically from dehydration, starvation, exposure, or mercy killing. Victims are not all that dissimilar from George A. Romero’s zombies — and, in fact, Ma lists the director’s Dead films among the things she looked at as part of her research — except that they have a much shorter shelf-life and no cannibalistic impulses. (Their utter vacancy and complete obliviousness to anything other than the activities they’re stuck in a loop reenacting certainly make them much sadder to contemplate as well.) Candace appears to be one of less than a dozen survivors in the New York City area and throws in her lot with the rest of them. Led by Bob, a former IT professional who seems to have found his calling as the half-assed survivalist-messiah of the wasteland, the group is headed for Chicago. There awaits “The Facility,” a vaguely described safe house where they will make camp and attempt to restart civilization. As they travel along and Bob prepares everyone else’s future for them, Candace looks to the past in order to find her own way forward. In this regard, as Larissa Pham astutely notes in her review for The Nation, the book beautifully splits the difference between “genre fiction and literature.” She continues, on point: “Part bildungsroman, part horror flick, Severance thrillingly morphs into a novel about self-worth, about the kinds of value we place on our own lives.” And in addition to Ma’s tremendous character study of Candace, the device of Shen Fever offers further opportunities for meaningful reflection on life, work, and their distinct lack of balance in the twenty-first century. Candace, for example, continues to go into work at her publishing firm long after it makes sense to keep going. This doesn’t separate her very much from the fevered, half-dead woman she notices inside an abandoned Juicy Couture, folding clothes day after day. “Candace’s ongoing commitment to work, though, isn’t borne only out of an immigrant work ethic; it is, as Severance shows us, a condition of very late capitalism,” Hu observes in that aforementioned Ringer piece. “It is also — as the coronavirus has made very clear — not unique to Candace.” What was already an excellent and incisive novel has now proven to be quite prophetic indeed. I both can’t wait and am a little terrified to see what Ling Ma does next.
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