Severance By Ling Ma
New York, NY; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 304 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by reviewed by Jessica Baumgardner
Recently I drove for twenty-five minutes along a path I take every day, multiple times a day, in Los Angeles—the route from my child’s preschool to our house—and as I pulled in the driveway, I realized with terror that I had no memory of having just driven. Either I was a) having a stroke b) experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s or c) a humanoid robot who repeats the same pattern every day (make breakfast, make lunches, drive, laundry, drive, make dinner), the protocol downloaded into my operating system with no need to activate my awareness.
I worry that it’s number three, because I do weird, autonomic things all the time. Once I swallowed my dog’s dermatitis medication after getting distracted for a moment before dosing her, losing the thread, and just taking the pill on autopilot. That led to a hysterical call to poison control. The other day, I was picking a bug off the table at a picnic and, distracted again with bug in hand, I ate it. It reminds me of this food research experiment where some people eat soup from bowls that are secretly refilling, and people just keep eating and eating with no consciousness of feeling full or the fact that they are endlessly slurping soup. It all makes you wonder about how much of our life is automatic.
The idea of mindless habits is a repeating motif in Severance, a gripping, sardonic, and kind of creepy debut by Ling Ma. The novel centers on Candace Chen, a young Chinese-American who moves to New York City after college. Even though she is a typical millennial bolstered by a trust fund after her parents’ death, she decides to take a job in book publishing, as a coordinator for the cheap printing of books in third-world countries. Candace works in the Bibles division, where she packages the same content over and over (and over) for different markets. Despite her more generationally accepted previous non-job as a photo blogger, Candace snuggles comfortably into her corporate cubicle, the mindlessness offering her a respite from the grief of orphanhood. “Once I started, I was good at losing myself.... The morning passed in a blur. I answered emails. I measure spine widths to the exact millimeter.... I don’t remember if I took lunch or not.”
Then a mysterious epidemic hits the city. Shen fever—named for Shenzhen China, where it originates—is an illness that causes the victim to repeat tasks from their daily lives, ad infinitum. They forget to eat or take care of themselves, enslaved to their own habits and routines. People drop like flies, the subway grinds to a halt, but Candace stays at her job, doggedly sticking to her routines in a rapidly deteriorating urban landscape until she is finally forced to leave. Like every good apocalypse story, she joins a cultish group of survivors who are trekking across the country to set up camp in a suburban shopping mall. And also like a typical apocalypse story, the survivors turn out to be more dangerous than the disease.
Even though the fevered aren’t horrifying flesh-eaters, they bear a more than passing resemblance to zombies, with their decaying bodies, dead eyes, and slow, one-track mind. Zombies are a stand-in for what our culture fears most. In past narratives, that’s been black people, atomic war, communism, and genetic engineering run amok. In this book, the zombie-types seem to represent mindlessness itself—our distracted culture, our impersonal lives, our routines. Ma writes about the look of the infected: “[The eyes] were open but unfocused.... The closest approximation for this gaze is when someone is looking at their computer screen, or checking their phone.” Candace comes upon a fevered family where a mother endlessly sets and resets a family dinner table, a husband and son lick their empty plates clean, and the daughter reads A Wrinkle in Time and chews her hair. (If this were to happen to me, I would be endlessly driving around L.A. like a Lyft driver from hell, murmuring “use your words.”) The behavior is reminiscent of Alzheimer’s, a disease to which Candace’s mother succumbed. After her brain became “flea-bitten,” her mother obsessively called Candace to remind her to use the Clinique 3-step skincare regimen: Liquid Facial Soap Mild, Clarifying Lotion 2, and Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion. “What you do every day matters,” she told her daughter, presciently.
Speaking of Clinique, Ma deploys a mindspinning list of name brands in the narrative— Candace buys cashmere at Uniqlo and Cleansing Beauty Oil at Shu Uemura, watches a sad fevered Juicy Couture employee endlessly folding and refolding sweaters, and takes refuge in a L’Occitane store in the mall. The blank-eyed consumerism reminded me of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, wherein all characters were so mesmerized by luxury brands that they didn’t notice the killer in their midst.
These zombies are also a stand-in for our guilt about our economic dependence on cheap labor and goods from poor countries. Shen fever originates in factory China and spreads to the world through the shipment of their products, a satirical poke at our cruel system of replaceable and invisible workers. Interestingly, the very first mention of zombies in America was also related to grueling work conditions. In 1929, William Seabrook wrote The Magic Island about Haiti’s voodoo culture. The author was touring the Haitian American Sugar Company, where he was introduced to four “zombies.” He writes, “The supposed zombies continued dumbly at work. They were plodding like brutes, like automatons. The eyes were the worst.… They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind but staring, unfocused, unseeing.” Instead of seeing the workers for who they actually were—slaves employed by American sugar companies, working relentless hours, living in squalor—he saw the undead. Thus, out of slavery and misery a mighty zombie genre was born! In Severance, the factory workers making a special preteen bible with semi-precious gemstones are unable to complete the job because their lungs are filling with rock dust. Once the fever hits, the world economy stops.
This might be a narrative about the tedium of work, but it’s also a loving tribute to work. Candace’s parents fled China so her father could pursue his career goals in America. Ironically, when her mother left home, she lost her fulfilling career as an accountant and found herself an underemployed non-English speaker in Salt Lake City, doing menial labor such as hooking synthetic hair onto wigs for eighty dollars a week. She mourns who she was in China, and poignantly fantasizes with a young Candace about what it would be like if she worked in “personal wealth management” and her child did all the cooking and cleaning. On her death bed, she tells Candace that the most important thing is for her to be “of use.” Candace heeds her mother’s advice and throws herself into performing at her job, even if it’s dull and endless. It takes her mind off things.
Severance is also a love letter to life in the city—its humming energy, the hive mind of its worker bees. Ma writes,
“To live in a city is to live the life that it was built for, to adapt to its schedule and rhythms, to move within the transit layout made for you during the morning and evening rush, winding through the crowds of fellow commuters. To live in the city is to consume its offerings.”
When she first arrives in New York, she takes daily walks from one end of the city to the other, taking photographs for her blog, NY Ghost. She is pretty sure her photos are clichéd, but she enjoys the rigorous routine of having somewhere to go and something to do: “The thing was to just keep walking, just keep going, and by some point, the third or fourth hour, the fifth or sixth, my mind drained until empty.” Candace stays in New York until she is seemingly the only human left, and then she heads to another metropolis, ready to make herself of use again.
“Severance” is an interesting title for this ambivalent book, because it’s an ambivalent word in itself. It can be a needed wake-up call from a dead-end situation, a golden parachute that delivers you to your next adventure. Or it can be a forced cutting off from your previous life that can leave you feeling rootless and pointless. The only time I have ever received “severance” was during my own New York apocalypse after 9/11. The city was inundated with the smell of melted steel and pulverized rock, flapping papers with smiling faces tacked to every building surface and votive candles in front of every firehouse. I was an editor at a trendy online magazine with a bunch of young and talented types. The dot com bubble had burst and the money was draining from the operation. One by one, workers were let go until it finally came to me. I had never been unemployed before, and I immediately felt unhinged. I became obsessed with becoming a cheese-monger and gained ten pounds. All of a sudden, everyone seemed to be walking faster than me on the streets—I couldn’t keep up. I had gotten out of sync with the city, and I didn’t really feel normal again until I got another job several months later, at another magazine. I was of use.
Everyone always harps on the importance of mindfulness these days. I have no fewer than seven guided meditation apps on my phone, and I swear my third grader learns more about meditation than multiplication at his school. But perhaps there are some benefits to mindlessness—the routines, the path more traveled. My kids were at their grandma’s house last week. I got in my car, not sure where to go.
Jessica Baumgardner is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She reviewed The Perfect Nanny and The Perfect Mother in the May/June 2018 issue of the Women’s Review of Books.