Ling Ma’s protagonist Candice Chen is a first-generation Chinese-American, working away at a mindless job coordinating the production of Bibles in China from her New York City office. When Shen Fever, a fungal infection, starts to hit the news, Chen barely notices. She continues working as the world falls apart around her, sending emails to coordinate production in factories shut down by a rising epidemic.
Part zombie survival story, part satire of late capitalism, Severance masterfully swings between Chen’s time in New York and her time traveling the road with a band of survivors making their way across the United States. These stories unfold with shocking similarity as the banality of day-to-day life takes hold. While Shen Fever has changed the world, humans still cling to ritual as a way of making it through the day.
Severance‘s “zombie virus” takes the form of a fungal infection which attacks the neural system, causing the infected to get trapped in innocuous rituals of everyday life, such as setting up the dinner table or getting dressed in the morning. Because these people pose no danger, unlike the creatures of The Walking Dead, the term “zombie” is never used. This absence highlights the connection between the living and the fevered, Ma’s term for those infected with Shen Fever. Ultimately, though, the rote experiences of the living and the fevered are quite alike: the robotically repeated rituals by the fevered are not so different from those performed before they became infected.
I tried to observe this feeling of shock, to observe its difference, but in fact I couldn’t detect any difference from all the other days that blurred together on this road trip. I couldn’t point to any deviation from the routine, everyday feeling, which was nothing. I didn’t feel anything.
While Severance calls into question what it means to be human, Ma saves her sharpest critiques for late-stage capitalism. Chen’s work in the production of bibles has her fielding calls and emails from publishers trying to lower the bottom line, searching for cheaper paper and factories to produce their holy texts. That irony is not lost on Chen when she informs an upset publisher that there is a shortage of gemstones due to safety concerns for the workers in the mines. How does one explain to a company that they should care more about the basic human rights of their factory workers than for their bottom line of the costs of bibles?
Chen’s experiences as a first-generation Chinese-American are paramount to her experiences throughout the book. As New Yorkers flee the city to be with family elsewhere, Chen discovers she has nowhere to turn. Her parents have passed away and her connections to China are minimal. Since China is suspected to be the originator of Shen Fever, borders are closed and Chen’s minimal skills in Mandarin mean that she is not looking to emigrate. She is left in New York City with the other disconnected folks with no one to turn to.
Severance is a story about loneliness. Ma writes, “New York has a way of forgetting you;” but that loneliness is most apparent-not in the chapters of Chen’s solitary time in the city-but in her experiences traveling with the other survivors as they make their way to the Facility, their own mythical safe-haven. Only a few months have passed since Shen Fever broke out, but the United States of America has already descended into a post-apocalyptic stereotype. Chen finds herself in a band of survivors who have created rituals around their scavenging and an ethos around their journey west.
Ultimately, Severance proves to be a sharp critique of American society overtaken by, yet inextricably linked to, late capitalism. Although the story is set in a dystopian world, Severance is certainly about America today.
Severance by Ling Ma comes out August 14th, 2018 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux