Severance posits that society can’t move forward if it’s stuck on how things used to be.
Illness is ravaging the masses. Communities are corroding. And it’s just another day at the office for Candace Chen. In the modern, foreboding cautionary tale Severance, Ling Ma weaves the immigrant experience, socioeconomic critique and zombie flick du jour in an unlikely blend of literary genre all its own.
Candace is pressured by her Chinese parents to be useful in America. She’s struggling in a financial climate of rising standards of living, outsourced labor, overwork and exhaustion. As a result, Candace settles into an uninspired routine. Consistency has always comforted her, even after her mother and father’s passing and her boyfriend’s departure from New York City’s cannibalizing consumerism. Shen Fever turning people into rotting husks of themselves doesn’t immediately rattle her either until her contract expires, shakes her out of the security her job provided and forces her to see how far the Big Apple has crumbled. She finds refuge in a group en route to the Facility where they hope to rebuild but stumbles upon the same middle management politics that govern the draining monotony she fled. When any decision could spell life or death, the power-hungry impose their authority upon those simply passing the days.
The widespread sickness implements a popular horror trope while implying capitalism is a plague. Shen Fever originates from Shenzhen, China where production volume has been outsourced. Fungi has reacted to chemicals emitted during manufacturing, bred in factories and spread beyond borders by transported goods. Candace tours the facilities where her company’s projects are outsourced, coordinated and assembled, then spots the on-site housing where workers reside except for a two-week break. A site shuts down because a change in production detail she dictated fostered a hazardous environment leading to health issues among its employees. To quell her guilt over her part in the economic scheme, she insists she was just doing her job, but with no prospects towards monetary advancement or personal fulfilment characteristic of the millennial condition, she remains in place.
Nationality may bear no significance in a dystopian society, but as Ma delves into Candace’s culturally hyphenated background, it emphasizes how the protagonist’s inability to fit in any one social circle plays to her advantage. Candace holds limited recollections of her childhood and familial ties overseas, yet her Chinese self that hasn’t assimilated since her family’s immigration to America makes her a relatable liaison to the businesses she deals with in the land of her birth. Her perpetual state of in-betweennes extends to her persisting in an age of plague without resorting to external support. She fashions a home out of her vacated office building before her exodus from New York, then evades the cult-like grasp of the Facility’s leader to escape again, aided by advice imparted from her mother via desperate apparitions.
Having never established roots, Candace resists the nostalgic bouts that seem to trigger fever and doom the infected to repeat patterns of their past. That her emotional detachment is her immunity to the Shen response may elude the casual reader because Ma details her origins so endearingly. They feel for Candace even when she offhandedly recounts wearing her deceased mother’s dresses to attract hookups or recalls her father’s dry sadness over the book he read to teach himself English — despite its premise about paving the hard road to a better life, there’s no happy ending.
Ma characterizes her central character with such wit and nuance to justify her thriving will, but perhaps a folly in that is readers fall into the sentimentalism Candace avoids and don’t recognize her unintended, great survival strength. Shifts to the apocalyptic setting also feel displaced after swimming so intimately in her memories, despite the author qualifying the connection between the disparate narratives. Those expecting straight adventure horror may find those elements lacking, but the undead genre has long symbolized humanity’s fear in itself — an aimless, perpetual wandering, evident in this novel.
Disaster may not strike with the explosive devastation of a bomb, but through the insidious metastasizing of disease eating its host inside out. By thrusting Candace out of her comfort zone to adapt to her evolving circumstances, Severance posits that society can’t move forward if it’s stuck on how things used to be.