I first picked up Ling Ma’s Severance thinking the novel inspired Apple TV’s show of the same name. It did not. But I read Severance anyway, thanks in large part to Ling Ma’s excellent storytelling and sharp, witty voice. Severance lampoons rampant capitalism, offers insight into the experience of a Chinese immigrant living in the States, and provides a hauntingly prescient look at how a virus could completely overturn life as we know it.
Severance juxtaposes its story with two timelines. They’re only months apart, but the world of each period is unrecognizable, compared to its counterpart. The first is our normal life, in which protagonist Candace Chen works a menial corporate job coordinating reprints of the Bible with South Asian printers. Candace lives the twenty-something life of a New Yorker, dates, has dinner parties, and pursues her photography in her spare time. All the while, she wonders what she could accomplish outside of the corporate walls. When Shen Fever rages through China, then the rest of the world, “The End” occurs. The book’s second timeline, only months following the complete downfall of society, sees Candace fall in with a group of survivors led by the power-hungry Bob, who ushers the entourage to the Midwest, where he promises a multi-story “Facility” replete with supplies and safety.
Severance feels utterly unique. It combines the millennial condition with a dreadful and deadly virus while diving deep into issues of identity and self-discovery. The book clocks in at ~300 pages, but it feels simultaneously sweeping and focused. Ling Ma narrows her lens to focus on Candace, and the reader experiences the book’s disparate events through the unifying force of the book’s protagonist.
The prose, for me, is the standout star of the novel. Ling Ma has a way of making every problem feel relatable, every struggle feels visceral and real. When she writes of the dredges prevalent in corporate America, it feels like a slog, and I get tired with Candace, sick of the jargon that covers everyone’s real personalities and insecurities. Ling Ma’s voice feels distinct and fresh, making Severance a gem in a sea of derivative fiction. I relished every sentence.
The characters, outside of Candace, all feel like tinged silhouettes, archetypes meant to serve the story’s purpose. Often, Ling Ma gives you a name, a small descriptor, and nothing else, leaving you to rely on the character’s interactions with others to understand who they are and what they’re about. It’s an effective method, in my opinion, because Severance leans into the dry, drab way we see fit to interact when the forces of corporate policy weigh down on us. When Candace meets her beau Jonathan, the prose opens up a bit, and we get a taste of life outside the capitalistic dome. Candace’s parents come to life through the stories she tells and the memories she shares. It all culminates into a single picture of one human—Candace—and how all of her experiences have shaped her.
Let’s talk plot now, which is one of my favorite elements at play here. Shen Fever could easily be an analog for Covid, even though Severance was published in 2018. The sickness results in confusion, bruising, and eventually a descent into repetitive performing of daily tasks before victims succumb to unconsciousness and die. The ultimate destruction of society at the hands of the fungal infection leads Candace to leave New York and meet Bob, Ashley, Janelle, and a few other survivors as they trek toward the Chicagoland area. These passages are interlaced with the bits about Candace’s life before, giving the plot a call-and-response feel. Every new chapter feels fresh and deals with the story elements within the context of their timeline. Candace and the crew go on “stalks,” in which they rummage for supplies in abandoned houses, or residences where fevered humans still go through the motions, awaiting death. Counterposed with the tales of Candace’s ho-hum corporate existence before, life after “The End” feels stark and new and darkly exciting, in a lethal sort of way. Forced to confront the downfall of daily routine, Candace and her fellow survivors do what they can to make ends meet. And that usually involves doing whatever Bob says. Cracks begin to widen in the group, and the end result is an interesting, heartbreaking conclusion for many involved.
The only minor critique I have of Severance is its ending. The story does a great job painting a picture of Candace’s life pre-pandemic and shortly thereafter, but the final pages are ambiguous and open-ended. I don’t mind a bit of ambiguity in my endings (my favorite movie is 2001: A Space Odyssey, after all). But here, it felt like a fade-to-black moment without a massive resolution. Perhaps Ling Ma was going for a pseudo-hopeful, semi-doomed ending to comment on the state of the book’s world, but I wanted something more.
Still, Severance riveted me from start to finish, and despite small issues with the book’s conclusion, I’ll absolutely recommend it to many of my friends. The prose, characters, and storytelling are top-notch, and I’m happy I picked it up.
Rating: Severance – 9.0/10