Ryan Chapman | Longreads | August 2018 | 12 minutes (3,139 words)
The end of the world in Ling Ma’s novel Severance comes not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but a stream of misinformation, social media hysteria, and plenty of willful denial. If this sounds familiar, it’s far from dreary. Ma injects comic levity into a world ravaged by “Shen Fever,” whose victims perform habitual tasks in a mute, somnambulant state until they waste away. Candace Chen, a New York-based, Chinese-American millennial, is immune to the disease, and joins a small group of survivors led by a former I.T. specialist.
Although this post-apocalyptic remnant waves a typical number of red flags — micro-authoritarianism, liberal use of euthanasia — Candace makes do as they scavenge for food and mercy kill the “fevered.” Ma depicts the end times with alternating chapters on Candace’s pre-apocalyptic life: dating in Brooklyn, navigating adulthood, and working at a book production company. She specializes in Bibles and takes occasional business trips to printing facilities in Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
Ma has fun with the end of the world: Severance reads like The Walking Dead infected with the anarchic spirit of Office Space. Candace’s coworkers sport designer flu masks, idly wonder about the colleague who didn’t return on Monday, and debate whether to take the spot bonus for staying on when everyone else has the good sense to get the hell out of NYC.
Candace doesn’t have good sense. She maintains her routines and eventually moves into her office. She updates a photo blog called NY Ghost with images of the empty city. And we learn Candace is guarding a secret which may imperil her chances with her newfound “friends.” Read more…