There’s a lot to unpack and even more to savor in Severance, Ling Ma’s debut novel, which is greater than the sum of its many parts: apocalypse fiction, office satire, immigrant story, millennial bildungsroman, and love letter to a dying New York. Our heroine, Candace Chen, emigrated from China to Utah at the age of 6. Pushing 30, she returns occasionally — not to Utah or her native Fuzhou but to Shenzhen, where they manufacture the specialty bibles she produces for a midtown publisher. Shenzhen is also the source of Shen Fever, which starts turning everyone — except Candace and a handful of others — into zombies who, instead of eating brains, get stuck in an endless loop of their cherished routines until they die. As society crumbles, Candace clings to her routines, maintaining a blog called New York Ghost, but finally leaves to tag along with a cult run by a tech geek named Bob.
Thus far we haven’t spoiled much, but we will. Joining the discussion today — touching on late capitalism, model minorities, the evils and pleasures of routine, and dystopia — are Vulture staff writer Alex Jung, contributors Maris Kreizman and Hillary Kelly, the Cut editor Molly Fischer, and moderator Boris Kachka.
Alex: Good morning all! NY Ghost here.
Hillary: Pics to prove it, NYGhost.
Alex: My iPhone is broken sorryyyy.
Boris: I’m not sure why every novel is not a dystopian novel now. Maybe the best ones are.
Maris: There’s definitely been an uptick in the market for dystopian books. This past year we had The Power, Red Clocks …
Hillary: Vox. They are mostly about women. We have been churning out the best post-apoc stuff lately.
Boris: Is that primarily what this is, or an office novel, coming of age? Is it wrong to even think of those strands separately?
Maris: I think the book loves being everything at once. A thing I’ve loved about coming-of-age novels in 2018 is that they have been turned on their heads. Asymmetry — white girl has affair with famous author, and then suddenly the world is so much bigger. My Year of Rest and Relaxation — so narcissistic and petty, but then 9/11 happens. Severance is a part of this — an understanding that a coming-of-age story isn’t enough.
Hillary: Severance is maybe a call to arms to other novelists? Like, telling them that they can’t just stick to their genres now, that it’s all interconnected.
Anyone else read Station Eleven?
Maris: Yes! I was thinking about that a lot while reading this.
Hillary: I think Ma definitely had it in mind. She’s offering the millennial version. Like, would we really start up Shakespeare troupes after the apocalypse? Or would we watch Friends DVDs on repeat? And I am saying this as someone who thinks Station Eleven is one of the best books of the past 10 years.
Molly: What stays with me about Station Eleven is what a vividly scary job Emily St. John Mandel did of capturing how it would feel to realize civilization was crumbling around you. But it feels like by design Ma was not so interested in making this genuinely scary. Having a non-communicable disease as your plot device is such an anti-dramatic choice.
Hillary: In all the post-apoc novels, things come down with a boom. In Edan Lepucki’s California, the economy just blows up. Here, things shut down so slowly. We literally get a stuck elevator.
Molly: The stuck elevator was a good moment. The recognition of all the societal mechanisms you take for granted to keep you safe.
Alex: I liked the slowness of this. I felt like it mirrored America at this moment.
Molly: Thinking back on events like blackouts or Hurricane Sandy, do you remember any sense of teetering on the brink? Like, “Oh shit, what if this is much worse than I realize”?
Hillary: I feel that way every day in D.C., Molly.
Alex: I think it was sort of like how Candace described — just enough disruption from the routine to be interesting.
Hillary: This whole book was my favorite “Why I Left New York” essay of all time.
Alex: “Goodbye to All That Capitalism.”
Maris: Is it a “Why I Left New York” essay if there are no New Yorkers left alive to read it?
Boris: But why does it take her so long to leave New York?
Hillary: What’s funny is that the fever makes people work through old routines again and again, but Candace — who isn’t fevered — stays in New York to work through all her routines again and again. She stays, partially, because she feels like she is finally living up to her parents’ ideal of a success. And because she finally has the New York she always dreamed of. I mean, the MTA doesn’t work anyway, so no loss there. But she is so gleeful about wandering without the crowds, the Frick, etc.
Boris: Hillary, you had an idea that nostalgia triggers Shen Fever, and Candace lacks it.
Alex: It does sound like she has nostalgia for a type of life — like her routines with her mom in Fuzhou.
Hillary: Well, the nostalgia she thinks triggers Shen Fever is very particular. Ashley only gets it in her own house. Bob only gets it in the mall. It’s place-oriented. Salt Lake City holds nothing for her. She’s placeless. All that travel back and forth to Shenzhen for her job really dials that up. She doesn’t feel connected to China, partially because China is no longer a distinct place.
Alex: Right, it’s become a simulacrum of the West in some ways.
Boris: The immigrant story felt both personal and familiar to me: pressure to succeed, a feeling of no return. How does this fit into the tradition of immigrant novels?
Hillary: Lately, they’ve gotten so fantastical. Like the premise of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, in which people teleport between countries. Now that most immigrants (of course, excluding Syrians, et al.) don’t have a dramatic transatlantic crossing, now that Lahore and Kansas City both have Starbucks, the focus needs to change. It’s remarkable to read the differences between a novel like Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, which I adored, and this one.
Alex: I do think there is something very Asian-American about the novel, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately — can it be a genre? Is it a sensibility?
Boris: What makes it that?
Alex: I think this feeling of placelessness really resonates with me — the movement back and forth — the loss of a home that you’re not really sure that you had to begin with. So what does nostalgia mean in this case? And what does it mean for a person who isn’t sure what the original referent is, whether it’s a childhood memory back in China or once you’ve moved to Utah. She doesn’t belong when she goes back to China (but can fake it) and then in subtle ways is told she doesn’t belong here (but can fake it).
Boris: I was put in mind of the “model minority.”
Alex: Yeah, her life as an extension of her parents that she has to make good on.
Hillary: Hence her staying in New York for the money.
Boris: Once it no longer has any value.
Maris: I was fascinated with the factors that went into Candace’s job of producing bibles — how cheap labor was exploited.
Alex: Also, the deep irony that it’s a BIBLE. It’s a product devoid of ethics like any other. When she thought about quitting, the thing that makes her decide not to is when she realizes that all the lingerie at Bendel’s is manufactured in the same way. It’s purely about production and her job as a middle manager atop this chain of global capitalism. Our girl loves routine!
Hilary: I actually don’t think Candace loves routine. I think she needs it. To keep herself from failing.
Maris: I don’t know — the way she first describes her routine in NYC, when she’s blogging — it seemed that she enjoyed that, legitimately.
Alex: The strongest emotional moments she had with her mom were tied to the sense of routine. I think she finds it grounding. And I think of Candace’s baby as a way to get back to what she had with her mom. That’s sort of how I envision it. Like, “Okay today we’re going to go stalk this mall, and then we’re going to eat some spam.”
Boris: Routine is very important for children! And this book has such a wonderfully ambivalent relationship to it.
Alex: I like that the book doesn’t seem to be a screed against routine. There’s a tenderness toward routine. Another detail that struck me was when they were stalking the one house and the mom was setting the dinner table, and Candace noticed the little variations. They weren’t doing the EXACT same thing. Which seemed to suggest that that’s where a certain humanity resided within the routine, but slightly different.
Hillary: That’s what makes her think they are still human inside. Is it what she sees in herself, too — that under the routine she’s still there?
Maris: Was Bob right in that they needed to be put out of their misery?
Hillary: Oh Maris, that’s the million-dollar question.
Alex: Well, they’re physically suffering because they’re just stuck in a loop until they are eaten by maggots.
Hillary: Except … everybody is stuck in the loop. Even the unfevered.
Alex: Are we …….. fevered?
Hillary: I love all the variations in how different shows/books refer to zombie-like people. The undead, the bitten, the walkers, the biters. And now, “the fevered.”
Alex: I wondered how many of the parallels to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead were intentional. In the second movie for instance, they actually go to a mall and set up camp there, and they sort of get obsessed with consumption. The female protagonist is pregnant. Also in the (fourth?) movie, the zombies are slower and also get stuck in routines that mimic the jobs that they had while they were alive.
Hillary: Bob is a guy who has seen all the movies and read all the post-apocalypse books. Nobody imagines the zombie apocalypse and thinks, “I’m going to be a sheep who follows someone else to freezing cold Chicago.” Bob was definitely excited when all this started going down.
Alex: Bob is a prepper!
Boris: I thought Bob was a bit thin. Did you all feel the book succeeds on every front?
Hillary: Everywhere, until it becomes an escape thriller. Then I felt a little disappointed. She gets out of the L’Occitane too easily.
Molly: Yeah, and just hitting the road is kinda [rolling-eyes-emoji].
Hillary: Which makes some sense! She isn’t playing to the convention and protesting her situation, thus alienating her captor even further. But still, I wanted more. Maybe it’s because I wanted to know more about what the others were doing in the mall.
Alex: I do like how intentional the brand choices were and how they said so much about someone’s personality. I mean, it is how we build our identities under late capitalism.
Molly: No ethical consumption under capitalism, or zombie apocalypse.
Boris: When did everyone realize Candace was pregnant?
Maris: Boris, I’m conditioned, when I read about a young woman vomiting, to wonder if she’s pregnant. Even during the apocalypse.
Alex: ESPECIALLY during the apocalypse. Every apocalypse has a pregnant woman, because she represents Life.
Hillary: It is a truth universally acknowledged that if the apocalypse happens and you are a fertile woman of childbearing age, you must be in want of a pregnancy.
Maris: I didn’t know what to think until the end of Handmaid’s Tale season two. But now I think Candace could pull an Offred and get that baby born on her own.
Hillary: In front of a roaring fire in a glamorous old mansion? I hope so!
Alex: Honestly why isn’t this a limited series yet?
Hillary: I thought Candace was going to miscarry, because Ma didn’t seem like she was interested in perpetuating the human race.
Boris: Does the novel being set in 2011 work for everyone?
Alex: I have to admit, Occupy Wall Street threw me out of it a little bit. It was such a blip that it felt slightly extraneous to me.
Hillary: The way she describes Bob is priceless: “He had played every iteration of Warcraft with a near-religious fervor.” Which is such a 2011 reference.
The setting worked for me. It was a smart tactic to have readers reimagine the recent past, but to take the tragedies and dramas they knew and minimize them in reference to something way larger.
Alex: That’s true, it creates an opening and gestures to the present/future in ways that resonate emotionally/intellectually, but in that way it feels very much of the moment.
Hillary: On another subject, why did Ma call it Severance?
Boris: Well, Jonathan left corporate America after he got a bad severance package from a magazine that had gone through a Tronc-like process.
Maris: Shen Fever partly comes from the gig economy.
Alex: Severance as an ending, and then thinking about her dystopian life as a severance package from late capitalism.
Hillary: I love that it can be such a violent word, too, but it isn’t used that way here.
Maris: The zombies are not violent. They’re chill af.
Hillary: Could the fevered be … happy?
Alex: Killing them really makes Bob seem inhumane. They’re just living their lives and fully have internalized Taylorism. Capitalism makes everyone fevered.
Maris: GOTTA GET THOSE BIBLES MADE!
Hillary: How about the ending, which is actually a beginning itself? “I get out and start walking.”
Alex: Severance 2: Here We Go Again.
Maris: Will she find anyone else?
Alex: She’s gonna run into Jonathan 100 percent.
Maris: That would be hot.
Alex: He’ll be like, “I was waiting.”
Hillary: “With my sea cucumber dick.”
Boris: Okay, let’s all go back to our routines.
Hillary: Same time tomorrow?
Alex: And the next day, and the next day, and the next day …