BOOK REVIEW: Severance by Ling Ma

There may be no depiction of the millennial experience timelier than Ling Ma’s in her novel Severance, a book about the mundanities of working life and the end of humanity as we know it.

Candance Chen, a young Chinese-American woman living in New York City, elects to continue her regular routine and work schedule even after all of her colleagues, friends and family members have succumbed to a rapidly spreading infection which leaves them little more than harmless zombies. Even as the city’s few survivors flee for other parts of the country, Candace continues writing professional emails and changing into business casual attire, her life a monotonous series of drone-like habits hardened into place over the past five years she’s spent working for a publishing company where she oversees the manufacturing of Bibles. Her behaviours aren’t so different from those of the infected, whose prognosis includes repeating the same mundane habits until they fester and decay. The only difference is that Candace is still healthy and alive.

To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?
— Ling Ma, Severance

When Candace eventually comes to terms with the fact that New York is no longer safe, she abandons her routine to join a small group of survivors who are planning to flee to an abandoned mall in Chicago. Though welcomed relatively easily into the group, Candace’s choice to remain in the city and continue her regular life for so long troubles her new companions. The story unfolds in two timelines, the first exploring Candace’s young life, immigration to the United States, and complicated relationships with her now-deceased parents and boyfriend, and the second unfolding over her journey to Chicago.

Severance is a bleak story filled with bleak characters and bleak settings. If you’re looking for something uplifting you won’t find it here. The group of survivors is led by Bob, a controlling, domineering man who treats Candace like a child. She, like most of the others she travels with, shows little desire to overthrow his reign and adheres to his rules in the malleable way of a young person who’s just grateful to fit in somewhere. Her genuflection to Bob isn’t so different from the passive obedience she’s displayed to adults, authority figures and acquaintances of superior social standing her whole life.

Even the disease itself is a rather fitting allegory for big city life in the 21st century. It often takes Ma’s characters an extended period of time to realize someone they know is ill. Everyone is so used to the dead-eyed, habit-driven way of American life that it doesn’t seem so shocking to see a neighbour or friend aggressively cleaning a pan until their fingers fall off. Candace herself, though completely healthy, lives a life of relentless habit, never breaking from her regular routines or straying too far outside of her comfort zone. The post-infection New York City she lives in may actually be the perfect place for her.

Candace is the perfect vessel through which to convey the end of the world. Her stark outlook offers a glimpse into the future humanity seems to be hurtling towards. Though our world may not end with a zombie disease outbreak, it feels inevitable we’ll meet our demise with the same kind of apathy and exhaustion Ling Ma’s characters so beautifully display. Maybe succumbing to the apocalypse will actually be a lovely reprieve of trudging to and from work everyday.

We all hoped the storm would knock things over, fuck things up enough but not too much. We hoped the damage was bad enough to cancel work the next morning but not so bad that we couldn’t go to brunch instead.
— Ling Ma, Severance

Severance, more than most other novels I’ve read this year, strikes at the core of what it means to be a young adult in the first world. Candace, like myself and many of my friends, flocks to a major city only to find she can barely afford rent and doesn’t have money to spend actually enjoying herself. It’s the brutal reality of being a millennial in a world that’s been so horrifically screwed up by the generations before us. We take jobs we don’t love in cities we can’t afford and succumb to the realities of constant workflow, waking up and going to sleep at the same time each day, and in the end it doesn’t give us the tools or financial stability we need to be truly happy. We’re so desperate to be at the core of human existence – in the centre of all the fun and excitement and entertainment we see in films and on social media – but once we’ve arrived in the New York City’s or Toronto’s or L.A.’s of the world we realize we’re just another cog in the machine.

As I reread what I’ve already written in this review I can see that Ling Ma’s desolate storytelling has rubbed off on me, making me philosophize about what it means to be alive at a time when abortion rights are being stripped from women and housing costs are skyrocketing. But the strange thing about Severance is that you’ll walk away from it feeling deeply confused about the world around you, but perfectly sure that some beauty must still exist, because Ma’s prose is nothing if not beautiful. Severance is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most horrifically lovely books I’ve ever read, and I may take to the streets to shout about how much I enjoyed it. Even it’s simple pink cover feels purposefully sarcastic.

Severance truly is an office novel for the modern age. Only in the 21st century could the end of the world be even more boring than being alive.