Severance by Ling Ma
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Severance is a zombie apocalypse tale, a workplace comedy, and a classic coming-of-age story all in one. In her debut novel, Ling Ma contemplates whether a world plagued by global capitalism is that different from one plagued by zombies. In each scenario, our protagonist has to figure out how to survive and find meaning in a world that is overcome by routine, leaving its citizens brain-dead at work and unaware that they’re dying. In the same way that it seamlessly merges genres, Severance manages to maintain a tart sense of humor while facing the absurdities of living through an age of planned obsolescence as well as its ensuing demise.
The book’s title is a clever reference to the sudden end of our protagonist’s career as well as a theme of the entire work. Candance Chen’s life is full of sudden cutoffs and transitions outside of the office as well, including the end of society itself. The piece explores more common instances as well, such as breakups, grief, and immigration, not to mention a global pandemic, which became ubiquitously relatable just a year after the novel was first published, eerily enough, in 2018.
The illness in Ma’s work also originated in a Chinese economic center (Shenzhen rather than Wuhan) and features a respiratory illness chillingly similar to Covid-19 plus the resulting global upheaval. The Shen Fever, however, ends with a fatal loss of consciousness. The sick mindlessly follow their routines, oblivious to their condition. As a fungal infection, we know the illness is traveling by global trade rather than person to person. In fact, the population adapts to the outbreak well; they mask up, social-distance, and sanitize their spaces. By indicating that the illness travels by cargo, Ma establishes today’s global capitalist economy as the culprit.
Ma pondered what the world would look like if our globalized economy served as the medium for a civilization-altering global pandemic, and we are living in one answer to it. The pandemic may function as a conflict in Severance, but, more importantly, it works to identify the real antagonist. Candace criticizes late-stage global capitalism while acknowledging her own role in it. Still, compliance is necessary to her survival. “In this world, money is freedom. Opting out is not a real choice.” With undetectable burnout leading to people dying while doing their jobs, Shen Fever may function not only as a result of capitalism but as a metaphor for it.
Severance is a brilliant work that examines both the extreme and the established to show how deeply these issues shape us. Ling Ma’s prose gifts readers with insightful and sharp-witted meditations on self-worth while living in, as well as after, a world of commodities.
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