An apocalyptic satire about a plague that turns people into mindless drones, Severance follows a millennial photoblogger as she navigates a world stripped of choice and feeling.
Released in August by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Severance is the debut novel of Ling Ma, who, after being laid off from her publishing job, wrote the book while living on severance pay. The novel ostensibly is a post-apocalyptic tale about the aftermath of the global onset of Shen Fever, a plague that strips people of conscious choice, turns them into nonviolent zombies, and makes them mindlessly repeat their daily routines until death. In spite of the straightforward and semi-familiar premise, though, Ma in fact has created a thought-provoking collage of genres: workplace satire, immigrant narrative, coming-of-age story, zombie novel.
In the main plot, former photoblogger and publishing assistant Candace Chen joins a group of survivors trying to reach a safe haven from the fever in Chicago. Along the way, Candace struggles to conceal a secret about her health, while also trying not to quarrel with the group’s self-appointed leader, a self-righteous former IT worker named Bob. The post-apocalyptic landscape Ma sketches is not lurid or dystopian, as you might expect, but unbearably familiar, filled with rules and routines. Even the way the survivors encounter zombies follows a strict protocol. Try as Bob might to mystify the group’s situation through longwinded speeches, Candace’s affectless account of the journey makes it clear that the world after the plague is as banal as what preceded it.
Interspersed between these chapters are ones recounting the lives of Candace’s parents, who immigrated to Salt Lake City from China early in their child’s life, as well as ones describing Candace’s coming-of-age in New York and her frequent business trips to factories in Shenzhen. Candace details at length her feelings of aimlessness and professional discontent, and she paints a vivid portrait of her parents’ tense marriage. As wry as Ma’s take on the apocalypse can be, her writing is at its best when it focuses on the complexities of close relationships and the malaise of millennial life, and these chapters often outshine the main storyline.
Much of the novel’s bleak satire comes from the connections Ma draws between her trio of plots. Candace picks up photoblogging upon moving to New York, only to drop it after receiving little notice; after Shen Fever hits, she resumes and captures the attention of survivors across the world, captivated by the presence of suffering in otherwise generic photos. In her life before the plague, Candace works for a publishing company that regularly exploits Chinese labor to churn out special editions of Bibles, while her parents embraced Christianity upon immigration to America, as a way to enter the nation’s social life. Severance rarely is funny, but it is clever.
The audiobook, narrated by Nancy Wu, expertly replicates Candace’s voice: droll, sardonic, deliberate. Wu captures the subtlety of the novel’s humor, while also preserving its meditative tone. In spite of how much I enjoyed the narration, I often felt like the audiobook moved too slowly at its default speed, and frequently found myself listening to it at 1.5x, and even 1.75x, its normal pace. The novel takes a little under ten hours to finish, but the stories move so quickly that the time easily passes.
Although the ending of Severance isn’t quite as strong as the rest of the novel, most of it is extraordinarily well written, and it offers an inventive take on a well-worn premise. It easily is one of the most promising debuts I’ve read this year, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Ma writes next.