Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine: her work, watching movies with her boyfriend, avoiding thoughts of her recently deceased Chinese immigrant parents. So she barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps the world.
Candace joins a small group of survivors, led by the power-hungry Bob, on their way to the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?
‘Severance’ is not your typical post-apocalyptic thriller. If you’re after a plague-based version of ‘The Walking Dead’, this isn’t the book you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a book that explores being rootless, severed from your past, barely invested in your present and unable to imagine a future more satisfying than the habits and routines of your daily life, then ‘Severance’ will resonate with you.
‘Severance’ is a first-person account of the life of Candace Chen, who immigrated to America from China with her parents when she was a child and who, when the virus that changes everything hits the world, is in her twenties, working for a publishing firm in NYC, managing the logistics of outsourcing the printing of specialist Bibles to China.
‘Severance’ was published in the summer of 2018 but it reads eerily like a book written after having lived through the first wave of COVID in 2020. It imagines something called Shen Fever because it is believed to have originated in China. The early symptoms are very similar to those of COVID, so are just as hard to pin down. Ling Ma’s description of the reaction of the government, companies and the general public to the fever now read like a summary of recent history. The fever she imagines is worse than COVID, not just because its rate of infection is very high but because what it does to people is cruel and deeply disturbing. She captures the slow slide from normalcy, through this-is-a-manageable-problem, through until-things-get-back-to-normal-we’re-going-to-do-this-to-stay-safe, to the-world-we-knew-is-gone-and-it’s-not-coming-back is lubricated by denial, self-deception and the persistence of hope even as people begin to drown in despair.
Yet, the plausible depiction of the apocalypse, chilling as it is, is not where the power of the book comes from. Ling Ma uses the global discontinuity produced by the Shen Fever pandemic as a large scale example of how we can become severed from the life we’ve always told ourselves we would have. That we can deny or ignore a ‘severance’ on the scale of the pandemic and tell ourselves that things will get back to normal shows the strength of our attachment to the lives we’ve imagined for ourselves in the face of evidence that it’s not a life we will be able to lead. The pandemic reminded me of Michelle Obama’s assertion that ‘Being President doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.’ ‘Severance’ recognises that we don’t become new people in the face of discontinuous change. Rather, we reveal the essential reality of who we are as the dreams of who we might become and the pretences of daily life fall away.
‘Severance’ refuses to sink into the comfort of post-apocalyptic tropes in which crisis brings out the best and the worst in people, transforming them into heroes or villains. Instead, it blurs the lines between life before and after the apocalypse. It shows Shen Fever as just the biggest of a series of ‘severances’ in the life of Candace Chen and her parents. Her parents are severed from their culture and family and history in China. Candace’s life in NYC is completely discontinuous from her childhood in Salt Lake City. Even before the pandemic hit, Candace was starting to recognise the gap between the NYC life she’d imagined and the one she was actually living. She’s also aware that while she is good at the work she does and it in a place where that work is valued, she doesn’t value what she does and this makes her life feel hollow.
Candace’s story is told as a series of non-linear descriptions, driven forward by a growing sense of threat in her post-apocalypse life. A threat that will force her to abandon her habitual passivity and make difficult choices about how she will live.
We learn of Candace’s childhood as the daughter of immigrant parents, one of whom embraces living in America while the other constantly mourns what has been left behind. We see how her life in NYC is not the dream she had hoped for but is rootless and unsatisfying. We watch the slow normalisation of loneliness and isolation. We see inertia slipping into apathy and then into terminal depression in a life held together by a mixture of distraction and routine and a denial of the possibility of choice.
I liked that Candace was the same person, with many of the same challenges, before and after Shen Fever hit and she found herself one of a handful of survivors.
Over the course of the book, Candace slowly starts to understand how adrift she had been. How she had become a passive observer of her own life. Even her blog of NYC photographs, her only real passion, is titled NYGhost, a name that comes to apply both to her and the city she is photographing. The post-apocalypse plotline puts Candace in a situation where she can remain passive, surrender agency, let go of identity and do what is required of her or she can take a risk. It struck me, as I’m sure it was supposed to, that many of us have found ourselves in that situation but without the stark light of an apocalypse to make the dilemma visible.
‘Severance’ is not an exciting book. The pace is gentle. The tone is passive. There is no escapism, only an unflinching look at how things are. I found the combination to be chilling and compelling.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘Severance’, narrated by Nancy Wu. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.
Ling Ma is a fiction writer, based out of Chicago. She was born in Sanming, China, and grew up in Utah and Kansas. She taught creative writing and English at Cornell University and at the University of Chicago.
Her debut novel Severance (2018) was named a New York Times Notable Book and received the Kirkus Prize, the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award, and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. it has been translated into eight languages.