Toward the end of Ling Ma’s Severance, Candace Chen gets stuck in an elevator. She’s on her way up to Spectra, the New York publishing house where she facilitates printings of new versions of the Bible. Ordinarily, this would be an inconvenience, a story to tell her friends later, but now it’s a potentially deadly tragedy. New York is essentially empty after a strange fungal infection called Shen Fever has slithered its way through the population; Candace remains, fulfilling a contract that promises her huge bonuses so long as she stays at work. She’s one of the last humans left in the city.
When she presses the Emergency Call button, it goes straight to City Services’ voice-mail. A few minutes later, the elevator inexplicably lurches to life and delivers her to her colleague-free floor, where she calls 911. The operator tiredly asks, “What are you still doing in there?” Candace doesn’t understand the question. She’s working, she says, “as if it were obvious.”
In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, the Georgia flu takes out 99 percent of the world in a matter of days. The never-described event (some speculate it’s a meteor strike) that decimates America in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road happens in the blink of an eye. Though events in Camus’s The Plague or Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera take place over longer stretches of time, in neither novel do the victims cleanly see the disease coming over the horizon. But in Severance, the destruction of society isn’t wrought over the course of a few days or in the instant of a nuclear event. It’s a slow roll of disaster, like an IV bag full of diluted poison that metes out its contents drip by drip.
Now, mid- (or perhaps early or late, it’s impossible to tell) COVID-19, Severance is turning into an uncanny parallel of our current state of the world. Like our virus’ origins in a market of the massive, newly hatched Chinese city of Wuhan, Shen Fever emerges from a production facility in Shenzhen, China. The fever doesn’t cause death per se, but “a fatal lack of consciousness,” in which the afflicted cycle through life’s most mundane routines — trying on clothes from their closets, setting and resetting the same dining-room table — ad infinitum. As it reaches New York, life slides gradually from normalcy to adaptation to complete rearrangement. At first, the New York Times keeps a running tally of the fevered. Fashion Week goes on, with models in “face masks, gloves, and even scrubs, many branded with designer logos.” New protocols for how to keep safe are issued almost daily — Candace is at first encouraged, and then required by the corporate powers that be, to wear an N95 respirator mask to work. America implements a useless travel ban to keep noncitizens out of the country. Broadway goes on hiatus. I needn’t go on.
What Ma properly (and alarmingly, perhaps even to her) anticipated was that a pandemic could turn into a slow-burn performance, that we wouldn’t be shot out of a cannon and into a new world, but instead would watch it all unfold like a digitally broadcast picaresque.
Think of how we’ve all watched COVID-19 roll in. It was early January — eight long weeks ago — that reports began popping up of a strange new flu. A few days later, we realized it may come to America, an unwelcome stowaway encased in unwitting lungs on some transpacific flight. Since then, our attention has glanced over it, then examined it, and now fixates on it. We’ve had so much time that some people stocked up for quarantine, then ate all their stored food and needed to shop again. We’ve flocked to the internet to try to see what everyone else is seeing. This isn’t the panic of dodging a zombie or crawling into a nuclear bunker; it’s one of watching norms slip away so gradually that we can all chat about them as they’re on their way out. Oh look, there’s no such thing as a restaurant anymore.
In a blink-of-an-eye catastrophe, there’s no time to reflect on what to make of it. But when a disaster peeks its head up out of a hole and slowly saunters into view, it turns into a thing to behold rather than one to run from. This pandemic is the most-watched show on TV, the best-liked post on Instagram, the thing we’d all chat about if only we could gather around the office watercooler. So far, there isn’t any definitive pandemic art, but that’s because we are the art — a giant performance of how we buckle when our routine makes us look like the fevered, enacting useless rituals because they promise some small dose of oxytonic relief.
We cling to routines like Candace does, stepping into an empty elevator in an empty office building in a New York so abandoned that cranes are falling off construction platforms and rents are so cheap that a publishing assistant can easily move alone to Manhattan (that, my friends, is a true sign of the apocalypse). Severance is primarily a novel about the breaking and then re-creation of normalcy. Candace is a creature of habit, so much so that she keeps going to work even when there is no factory left to print books, when there is no demand even for Bibles. “I got up,” she explains early on. “I went to work in the morning. I went home in the evening. I repeated the routine.” After she finally leaves New York, she joins a crew of seven other survivors making their way toward something called “The Facility” in Chicago. The group makes their own systems: Before they raid houses for supplies, they gather in a circle, take their shoes off, and hold hands before chanting “a mantra that we recited every time. The fact that it corresponded to the rhythm of the Shins’ ‘New Slang’ made it easy to remember.”
It’s a human instinct to establish systems — beginning with the feeding and sleeping schedules newborns develop and all the way through the familiar daily formulas created for elderly dementia patients. Now, social media has turned into a virtual slideshow of other people’s coping schedules — color-coded charts they surely aren’t following all day with their rowdy 3-year-olds, evening routines that involve an hour’s worth of skin care, exclamation-pointed directives that they get up and move every 30 minutes. What we’re looking for in repetition is stability, a path forward that looks just like the path behind us.
What Severance understands is that when the breakdown of public life is unhurried, there’s time to sink ourselves back into the same head-down, inward-facing regimens that left us disconnected even when we had ample opportunities to face-to-face connect. Watching the world go by was our routine in the years leading up to COVID-19, and that hasn’t changed. In normal times, we watched self-made teenage celebrities watch themselves put on their makeup in the mirror and clicked on blaring videos that other people filmed at concerts we didn’t go to, for bands we probably didn’t even like. Now we watch January Jones tell us how to take a soothing bath with pantry supplies we already have on hand. Mostly, we watch each other watch public life slip away.
Candace becomes a watcher, too, photographing and documenting her empty city on a blog — a horse trotting “purposefully, cheerfully, unhurried, down Broadway”; the murals inside Bemelmans Bar; a private security guard still standing sentry in a townhouse window. That’s what she knows how to do, what the piecemeal breakdown of society has enabled. Like us, Candace’s new normal is a rampant obsession with taking in the world around her and trying to make sense of its abnormality.
The gang that she eventually joins is headed by Bob, a former IT guy with a carpal-tunnel injury who brags that he’s played every iteration of World of Warcraft — exactly the kind of guy who would irritatingly survive an apocalyptic pandemic and then somehow end up in a leadership role. He’s a buffoon, but sometimes he gets it right. In a little speech he gives to the crew after smashing Candace’s (disconnected but still sentimentally meaningful) iPhone, Bob says:
The internet is the flattening of time. It is the place where the past and the present exist on a single plane. But proportionally, because the present calcifies into the past, even now, even as we speak, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the internet almost wholly consists of the past. It is a place we go to commune with the past.
And isn’t that where we all are now, reading this piece, sucking the past into the present, insisting our routines will get us through, flattening a big, broad world into just another performance — something we think we will someday sew up like a novel and remember as that quaint little time we all had a pandemic together.
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