Severance, by Ling Ma
Publisher : Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2018)
I first read Severance by Ling Ma in the winter of 2021. It was February 2021, and we had been living with the coronavirus pandemic for nearly a year. I myself, along with my husband, had fled New York City, where I lived for nearly 15 years, for the safer, less cramped, AND more liveable balms of Connecticut. So, suffice to say, a novel about a contagious disease that originated from China and spread throughout the whole world, leaving sickness and death in its wake, was extremely fucking resonant!
Candace Chen, our protagonist, is a millennial twenty-something Chinese American immigrant who works as a production coordinator at a Manhattan book publishing company. She specializes in overseeing the production of Bibles in China. The book is set in an alternate reality in our recent past – around 2011 during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. In this timeline, Shen Fever, a fictional fungal infection originates from the manufacturing facilities in the Shenzen region of China, and spreads throughout the world, causing its victims to repeat their old routines over and over again, until they inevitably succumb to malnutrition, dehydration, fever, impaired motor coordination, and ultimately, death.
People turn into zombies, but not the typical brain-eating kind. They essentially become mindless automatons, devolving into a state of perpetual repetition – eating dinner, folding clothes, watering plants, watching television, and so on, until the body decays. Shen Fever locks the infected into an endless state of mindless repetition until they die.
Offices shut down, masks are issued to employees, cleaning and spraying crews come in to sanitize work locations, and countries issue travel bans. The New York Times begins a counter to track the number of infected. Candace is one of the few remaining survivors, and one of the last people to leave New York, choosing to remain at her job in NYC almost until the bitter end, as Shen Fever devastates the city around her.
The novel switches back and forth between Candace’s past life, prior to her departure from New York City, and her present situation, in which she is a member of a small group of survivors en route to The Facility, a place where they hope they can be safe and start over.
In her life just prior to the onset of the Shen Flu, Candace has recently broken up with Jonathan, her boyfriend of five years. Jonathan, a free-sprited freelancer who works various temp jobs, decides to leave New York (just prior to the outbreak) and sail around the world.
Candace opting for the stability and security of her career in New York, breaks up with Jonathan. “You live your life idealistically. You think it’s possible to opt out of the system. No regular income, no health insurance. You quit jobs on a dime. You think this is freedom but I still see the bare, painstakingly cheap way you live, the scrimping and saving, and that is not freedom either. You move in circumscribed circles. You move peripherally, on the margins of everything, pirating movies and eating dollar slices….I used to admire this about you, how fervently you clung to your beliefs—I called it integrity—but five years of watching you live this way has changed me. In this world, money is freedom. Opting out is not a real choice.” (186-187)
After the breakup, Candace discovers that she is newly pregnant with Jonathan’s baby.
The Shen Fever pandemic provides the milieu for Severance to make observations about work, globalization, capitalism, urban environments, habits and routines, loss, alienation, and loneliness.
As her office shuts down in-person work, and coworkers flee, Candace is enlisted by management with the promise of a massive paycheck to stay and oversee operations while everyone else leaves to be with their families or to quarantine somewhere safer.
Nonetheless, Candace continues to show up for work at the abandoned publishing house in midtown Manhattan, even when the city’s subway lines flood, and construction cranes begin to fall, and Time Square’s famous crowds have disappeared, and money loses all its value. Even when there is no work to be done, no communication from senior management, and even though most of her colleagues have either fled the city or become fevered.
Candace becomes consumed with work, even when there is no work to be done, and as her job duties become fewer and fewer, the line between the infected and Candace, who follows her own work routine with mindless diligence leaves much to be questioned. Continuing to engage in capitalism, even after a decimating plague, is, perhaps, the most mindless routine of all.
Severance might prove interesting to millennials, New Yorkers, urban professionals, women, first generation immigrants, and anyone who has questioned the role, purpose, and meaning of their work. Why does Candace continue to go to work, even when it is clearly unsafe and there is no work to be done? Is it habit, routine, or something deeper? Why have we made work such a central part of human identity? Is that the natural order of things, or is there another way of living? Is capitalism, consumerism, and globalization inevitable?
Top 5 Quotes
- I didn’t know what to do, so I pushed it to the farthest corner of my mind. I went to sleep. Then I got up. I went to work in the morning. I went home in the evening. I repeated the routine. pg. 143
- And finally, it took a force of nature to interrupt our routines. We just wanted to hit the reset button. We just wanted to feel flush with time to do things of no quantifiable value, our hopeful side pursuits like writing or drawing or something, something other than what we did for money. Like learn to be a better photographer. And even if we didn’t get around to it on that day, our free day, maybe it was enough just to feel the possibility that we could if we wanted to, which is another way of saying that we wanted to feel young, though many of us were that if nothing else. pg. 180
- You live your life idealistically. You think it’s possible to opt out of the system. No regular income, no health insurance. You quit jobs on a dime. You think this is freedom but I still see the bare, painstakingly cheap way you live, the scrimping and saving, and that is not freedom either. You move in circumscribed circles. You move peripherally, on the margins of everything, pirating movies and eating dollar slices….I used to admire this about you, how fervently you clung to your beliefs—I called it integrity—but five years of watching you live this way has changed me. In this world, money is freedom. Opting out is not a real choice. pg. 186-7
- Not working is maddening….The hours pass and pass and pass. Your mind goes into free fall, untethered from a routine. Time bends. You start remembering things. Past and present become indistinguishable. pg. 200
- To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out? pg. 260
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