Do you enjoy reading books that make you reflect upon your own life and experience? Severance, an apocalyptic novel by Ling Ma, does this in more ways than one.
Ling Ma, an Asian-American writer from Chicago, expertly weaves three different timelines together, each of which center around the protagonist, Candace Chen. We see how Candace lives as a child in China and Utah, how she lives before the End in New York City, and how she lives after the End with a group of broken but determined survivors.
And what is the End? “The End” is disease from China known as Shen Fever that takes the US and the world by surprise. It sounds a little like our non-fiction acquaintance, COVID-19!
The analogy ends there, however—and thankfully it does, because the Shen Fever is far more deadly. Still, the talk of masks, quarantines, and shutdowns in the novel hits close to home. Some may even get the impression that Ma’s novel is semi-prophetic, being published in May 2019, before our own pandemic.
The likeness of the Shen Fever to COVID-19 is only one way Severance holds up a mirror to our own lives, a reflection that I would assert is positive in one sense. We are steadily overcoming our coronavirus, while, in Candace’s world, the Shen Fever overcame them.
How did the disease overcome them, exactly? This is the second way Ling Ma makes us self-reflect, this way being purposeful, whereas the fever’s likeness to reality is coincidental. When the Shen Fever infects people, they continue doing their mindless work and life routines. They are lifeless but continue to put away dishes, do paperwork, or organize shelves.
Severance, according to Ma, “began as a meditation on work.” Others characterize it as a satire of millennial working conditions.
Ling Ma continues to explain some of the inner workings of her meditation on work:
“During periods of unemployment, I learned that there is no way to inhabit freedom without establishing routines. They break up and change time, create a sense of order and control. They confer meaning. Yet … there are so many jobs with work-related routines that can become suffocating and pointless and flattening.”
With a realistic protagonist and sometimes too-vivid apocalyptic images, Ling Ma illustrates both the freeing and the enslaving senses of routine. Routine being an essential part of everyone’s life, there is plenty of self-reflection to go around when reading this book. Will we work ourselves to death, or is there something more to life? This is the question Severance poses and suggests an answer to.
Feature Images via LOS ANGELES TIMES AND UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO