By Ling Ma
304 pp. Picador. $17.
I picked up “Severance” at the book megastore Powell’s (it takes up an entire city block!) in Portland, Oregon late last year. That was back in the days when the word “corona” made people think of a Mexican beer, not a deadly virus that has the majority of the world on lockdown.
All of which to say, the virus had no impact on my desire to read this. In fact, I hadn’t even known when I bought it that a pandemic featured in the plot. My interest instead was piqued because of the pink cover and the blurb from the New Yorker on the back stating that “Severance” was “the best work of fiction yet about the millennial condition.” (Who wouldn’t be intrigued by that?)
Sales of “Severance” have shot up in recent weeks as readers (some segment of them, anyway) have flocked to the genre of pandemic literature in an effort to further immerse themselves in current events. Or perhaps trick themselves into thinking that what they’re currently experiencing is really just fiction.
While I very much enjoyed that other pandemic novel, “Station Eleven,” I mentioned in my review last month that I ultimately felt it to be more of an airport novel than a work of capital “L” Literature (as I dubbed it).
But “Severance” is different. With great envy, I must confess that on her very first attempt, author Ling Ma looks to have written an unforgettable work of Literature. This is largely because, unlike “Station Eleven,” the pandemic that wipes out the majority of the earth’s population in “Severance” is something of an afterthought to the larger social issues at hand.
A novel about a disaster, man made or natural, is at the end of the day still a disaster novel. Like disaster movies, entries in this genre can be wildly entertaining, well written or directed, but they’re rarely worthy of accolades because they’re still functioning mostly as escapism.
I love “Independence Day” but it’s not exactly going to win any Oscars outside of various technical categories. Ditto “Station Eleven,” which is as well written as anything you’ll read, with incredibly compelling characters, but it’s not about anything that you and I are facing today (current pandemic notwithstanding).
Such novels, such movies, have to be about something bigger than just the end of the world.
Leave a comment if you feel differently, but I can’t help but feel that that, then, is what distinguishes Capital “L” Literature from Airport Novels. Literature focuses on issues that you and I are experiencing today. That’s why the only literature that can ever truly endure focuses on grandiose human themes and issues that remain relevant long after its first readers are dead and buried.
“Severance” then, is not about a pandemic, but about capitalism. Within that broad framework, Ling Ma tackles the workplace, globalization, inequality, consumerism, and immigration, among other things. And she does so brilliantly.
“Severance” is at once biting satire, akin in some ways to “The Office”, and a cathartic takedown of consumerist culture. Brand names are tossed about with wild abandon.
Shiseido facial exfoliants. Blue Bottle coffee. Uniqlo Cashmere.
Jos. A. Bank suits. Salvatore Ferragamo wing tips. Eddie Bauer fleece jackets.
Louis Vuitton suitcases. Talbots dresses. Burberry trench coats.
And the list goes on.
Working that job you hate, biting your tongue when your colleagues make a cutting remark, failing to report a superior who harasses you.
You do it all in order to get that stuff. To hopefully be able to one day afford that silver Jaguar XJ, the Coach satchel.
The pandemic exists only as a backdrop to our greater societal and economic woes, it exists to contrast the mundanity of office life, of the factory mentality that sees you clock in and clock out each day and feed progress reports to your superiors, with a virus (fungal spores, not avian flu) that leaves the “fevered” not so much incapacitated as stuck in a loop performing banal and mundane tasks of every day life.
In the context of the disease, these tasks look empty, they feel pointless. But these tasks, the hamster wheel we run to succeed in the professional world, have always been empty and pointless. It’s only when we see them performed by the “fevered” that they become obviously so.
The disease shows the modern day runaround for what it’s always been — the province of the soulless.
Author Ling Ma is a Chinese American and her protagonist, Candace Chen, is likewise Chinese American. Candace was whisked from China to Salt Lake City when she was a young girl and after so many years of being in the US feels, as do so many immigrants, and so many millennials generally, as though she doesn’t fit into either place, doesn’t fit anywhere.
The notion of place, of community, has always been central to an understanding of one’s identity. But what if you don’t have a place? What then?
All you’re left with are your memories. Your memories are what you cling to for some clue as to who you are when you don’t know where home is.
It’s only fitting then that Shen Fever (so called because it originated in the Chinese city of Shenzhen) is “a disease of remembering.” The fevered, we are told, “are trapped indefinitely in their memories.”
“What is the difference between the fevered and us? Because I remember too, I remember perfectly. My memories play, unprompted, on repeat. And our days, like theirs, continue in an infinite loop.”
Why are some characters fevered and others aren’t? Because they can’t forget the past, but are drawn to it. We all remember — it’s what we do when we’re faced with our memories that matters.
Reading “Severance” while locked in at the house because of our own real world pandemic is a particularly rich experience. I’ve realized over the past few weeks that Candace Chen’s thoughts resonate deeply.
“The problem with the modern world condition was the dearth of leisure. And finally, it took a force of nature to interrupt our routines. We just wanted to hit the reset button. We just wanted to feel flush with time to do things of no quantifiable value, our hopeful side pursuits like writing or drawing or something, something other than what we did for money.”
This novel speaks to what ails us today. It gets to the heart of the disease in our societies. But what afflicts us didn’t originate in the natural world — it’s entirely man made.