Review: Severance by Ling Ma
Apocalypse stories have such a rich history in fiction that any writer considering penning the end of the world ought to pause and ask themselves: Do I really have anything new to say here? Ling Ma did not pause.
Candace Chen is a millennial woman without family living arguably discontentedly in New York City when the apocalypse unfolds. “Arguably” because Candace is not unhappy so much as she is not happy — a circumstance that might be described as germane to the millennial condition. She is not really an artist (nor is she a corporate drone, regardless of the flap copy incorrectly describing her as such), but the pictures she takes of the City and posts anonymously on a blog as “NY Ghost,” are the only thing she derives something like satisfaction from. That said, the pictures are not good and Candace has no illusions that art might save her. When her boyfriend, Jonathan, becomes disillusioned with NYC and its “on-trend consumers,” she declines his offer to flee society with him and invest in her “art.” When Jonathan tells Candace his plan — to leave the City and sail a yacht to Puget Sound — he indulges in a brief monologue:
“The future is more exponentially exploding rents, the future is more condo buildings, more luxury housing bought by shell companies of the global wealthy elite. The future is more Whole Foods, piles of refrigerated cut fruit packaged in plastic containers. The future is more Urban Outfitters, more Sephoras, more Chipotles. The future just wants more consumers. The future is more newly arrived college grads and tourists in some fruitless search for authenticity. The future is more overpriced Pabsts at dive-bar simulacrums. Something something Rousseau something.”
Even as she rolls her metaphorical eyes at Jonathan’s overwrought earnestness, Candace also realizes two things: she doesn’t disagree with him and yet can’t be tempted to leave a life that is, if not great, definitely okay. “The thing,” she thinks, “[is] just to keep walking, just keep going.” So, that’s what Candace does. She keeps working a job she doesn’t quite hate, in a city she doesn’t quite love, in a life that is not quite fulfilling.
When Shen Fever — Ma’s harbinger of doom — begins to spread, the symptoms of infection are, ironically, an impulse to just keep going. In one memorable scene, a fevered family reenacts the same dinner routine over and over and over again, cutting absent food, stacking empty dishes, saying unintelligible grace, even as their bodies waste slowly away.
Where Severance fails, however, is not in its satirical “take-down” of contemporary life. The satirical element of the novel is great.
Candace’s sardonic sense of humor — “Something something Rousseau something” — is a true pleasure throughout the novel, and her pre-pandemic life is lush and well-developed. Instead, Severance fails to deliver on the actual apocalypse; it is in the post-pandemic pages that the novel falls apart.
When Candace finally leaves New York City (only after fulfilling the terms of her employment contract, of course), the pandemic has rendered her one of the only survivors left in the United States. She hijacks a taxi from a fevered taxi driver and it takes her as far as Pennsylvania, where she is discovered near death on the shoulder of the highway by a band of immune survivors. Their fearless leader? Bob, former IT manager. Their destination? “The Facility,” a mysterious property that Bob claims to own and promises will be safe. Along the way, the ragtag group “stalks” commercial and residential properties, collecting supplies to take to the Facility and “releasing” the fevered they encounter.
At this point in the review, there are a handful of reasonable questions you might be asking. What is “releasing”? It’s exactly what you suspect it is. Who are the members of the ragtag group? I wish I could tell you, but none of them are developed enough for me to describe. What are Bob’s long-term intentions? Who knows, but they’re not good.
At this point in the novel, I also had questions, but only one was particularly pressing: Is this actually a season of The Walking Dead? I haven’t finished the television series, but I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Candace and Lori (like Lori, Candace is pregnant), Bob and the Governor (except Bob is decidedly less sinister), and various plot elements (Candace’s hallucinations are similar to Rick’s, “releasing” the fevered is basically the same as “clearing” walkers, the abandoned shopping mall is the novel’s version of the abandoned prison, etc.).
At the novel’s end, Ma leaves much unresolved — for me, the lack of clarity regarding the mechanism of becoming fevered was especially frustrating — but the bigger issue is that the post-pandemic plot, which constitutes fully half of the novel, feels like something you’ve consumed before.
If you haven’t seen The Walking Dead or have a more literary bent, it might feel like Colson Whitehead’s Zone One or Laura van den Berg’s Find Me. But regardless of what Severance reminds you of, I suspect it reminds you of something — which is another way of saying it just doesn’t feel wholly original. As much as I liked Candace’s voice and perspective (and I really, really liked Candace’s voice and perspective), I don’t have it in me to love a novel that feels like a Frankenstein of everything that came in the genre before it. If you don’t have something new to say, don’t say anything!
Rating: 1.5 stars
To despise someone is intimate by default.
Just because you’re adequately good at something doesn’t mean that’s what you should do.
The first place you live alone, away from your family, [ ] is the first place you become a person, the first place you become yourself.
Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California.