By Maya Conway
If there’s one thing you read in the dwindling days of lockdown, it should be Ling Ma’s 2018 dystopian literary novel Severance, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award. As the country began tiptoeing into normalcy, I was jolted back into the terrifying and ambiguous reality of the first half of 2020 by this gripping satire. Severance follows protagonist Candace Chen as she is inducted into a group of what appears to be the only survivors of “Shen Fever”, an airborne virus originating in China which quickly becoming a global pandemic. We watch as she ruminates on her life before, and during the early days of, the apocalypse that ensued.
This results in an intense examination of the mundane nature of working culture against the backdrop of a killer virus affecting the entire world. Candace’s life is the new normal: panic-buying on Amazon, masks as a fashion statement and political signifier, sparse and unreliable public transport, public shaming of those deviating from the rules, and an external insistence that we should not be working yet an internal pressure to keep working harder than ever. Sound familiar?
Whilst the zombie apocalypse genre is saturated with stories ranging from good to bad to ugly, Ma gives us a surprisingly non-violent, yet equally eerie, spin on the narrative, encapsulating the monotony of 21st-century urban life and the trappings of consumerism.
Severance’s tone is wildly different from its apocalyptic contemporaries, with Ma’s voice echoing the likes of Halle Butler and Ottessa Moshfegh. Instead of being stalked by terrifying semi-human monsters intent on eating her flesh, the narrator feels only pity for the sufferers of Shen Fever. When infected, or “fevered” as it is termed throughout the novel, sufferers compulsively complete the last mundane task they were doing pre-infection; be it laying the table, reading the same page of a book or trying on outfits. If they are not “spared” (taken out of their misery by one of the survivors), this is how they die. The depressing circumstances of the fevered’s last moments mirror the banality of modern work, evident in facets of Candace’s career, which involves organising the development of various Bible reprints. The virus is not the only evil explored by Ma; we also see the insidious effects of consumerism, globalisation, imperialism and exploitation. This is the real evil; both zombies and survivors are victims of it. The actions of the infected also force the reader to address the mindless tasks we complete daily with the blank, vacant expression of a fevered zombie (hint: most of these involve looking at a screen).
Though this is not medically explained or explored in depth throughout the narrative, the fever seems triggered by nostalgia, another common theme in the book, as Candace describes her life before the virus hit her home of New York. As many have learnt from the past few months, it is sometimes inevitable that we will unpack those unexamined boxes of our history during isolation. This exploration into our narrator’s identity and heritage is what sets this piece apart from others of its genre. Ma weaves equally heartbreaking and heartwarming tales of the Chen family’s emigration from the Fujian province of China to Utah, and their journey to acceptance in their new community. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Candace’s “other” status in the survivor’s clique is not a new place for her. She has frequently fought for inclusion throughout her life, as an Asian immigrant in America and as she clamours to be part of the “Art Girl” collective at work.
Candace’s naivety at the pressing nature of the pandemic throughout the novel is disconcerting yet relatable, reminding me of the heady days of early March when I believed I’d only be working from home for a few weeks, leaving a number of necessary items at my desk I am still yet to return to five months later. Candace is bored, uninspired and often happy to ignore the wrongdoings of the world, the unethical labour practices of her employers and the impending armageddon, in her desire to complete her project and earn a promotion. Her capitalist goals, despite her apparent disinterest in them, are not hindered by the chaos that surrounds her.
The world is still a dark, scary place and the arguments for and against the loosening of lockdown are complex. When this all first kicked off, I could not imagine enjoying any form of content that explored a pandemic. Even the word made me shiver, the brief mention of it in passing, when a favourite podcaster would assure me that this was recorded in their own home, socially distanced of course. Now times are changing, and while Ling Ma’s imagination does not seem as far-fetched or dystopian as it may have done upon its publication two years ago, I couldn’t recommend this delightful slice of (partial) escapism more. Part of me thinks perhaps Ma is a time traveller, but in reality, I think she just saw this all coming. As we enter the new normal, what do we want to save from the old normal? Does it take a pandemic to shake the masses out of their fevered state of rote tasks and endless scrolling? Or are we all Candace, holding onto the security of what we deem as normalcy while the world crumbles around us, waiting for all of this to be over?