Review: Severance by Ling Ma
by Danielle Shi, candidate for Masters in the Humanities, MAPH program
(WARNING! Spoilers ahead.)
In her genre-bending, dystopian immigrant novel Severance, author Ling Ma (AB’05) introduces us to Candace Chen, a self-conscious New Yorker millennial, as she beats the odds in surviving a global epidemic of Shen Fever, a wasting illness that reduces its victims to soulless vessels forced to mechanically cycle through their last acts until their bodies disintegrate.
Ma, who teaches fiction writing as Assistant Professor of Practice in the Arts in the Department of Creative Writing at UChicago, received the 2018 Kirkus Prize for her debut. As an author of Asian descent, her decision to write speculative fiction is a dramatic departure from more traditionally bent predecessors in the Chinese immigrant tale, such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Fae Myenne Ng. Kingston and Ng use elements such as folkloric talk-story to circumvent historic restrictions on women’s ability to express themselves, but Severance encounters no such blockade. Everything, from Candace’s aspirations to be like the chic Art Girls at her office to her sex life, is discussed in wry, candid detail, belying the seriousness of the book’s themes. Historical reference is notably absent; the novel takes place in what seems to be present-day Manhattan, or a not-so-distant tomorrow. By recasting a specific Asian American history into a post-apocalyptic nightmare of capitalist consumerism, Severance radically eschews historical perspective for the phantasmal uncertainty of a speculated future, demonstrating the ability of minority writing to destabilize and question our conceptions of the ordinary.
Ma’s sleek, light prose offers an entertaining version of New York young professional culture while hewing close to the immigrant tale, intercutting scenes of Chinese factory visits for work and intimate shark fin soup dinner parties. Meanwhile, the book’s crossover into zombie apocalypse novel shakes Candace—and the reader—out of concerns about the normal routines of life: jobs, relationships, success. We are given a glimpse into what might be if our own small world were to suddenly fold, leaving us stranded and unmoored with only memories of the past to comfort us.
What Ma’s transnational plot gives us is a sepia-tinged nostalgia for the recent past, a longing for an intergenerational history found amid images of sweltering Fujian summers and walks through the night market. Her experimentation with a different form of writing—one as tenderly poignant as it is at turns farcical—asks us to participate in the construction of a boundary-pushing Asian American identity that is deeply necessary in our vision of America today.
Told in flashback and as a present-day narration to the controlling leader of a survivor group trekking across the continental United States, of which she is the last member to join, Candace’s story is an ode to New York, to the city she reluctantly leaves behind.
“I have always lived in the myth of New York more than in its reality,” Candace muses. “It is what enabled me to live there for so long, loving the idea of something more than the thing itself.”
Orphaned and alone, she goes on long walks photographing abandoned districts for her blog, NY Ghost, cataloguing the gradual wearing-down of the city’s infrastructure and the disappearance of its tourist industry. With no living family in the US, Candace is trailed by reminisces of her mother; she wears her old dresses and purchases stacks of paper money in China to burn at her apartment in a funeral pyre dedicated to her parents. The colorful, variegated China of her past, where she lived until she was six, is woven into the tapestry of Ma’s doomsday tale, as both the opulent hotels Candace visits for her job and as a summery childhood home hauntingly out of reach.
“My father rarely spoke of the past, and perhaps it was only after having officialized his severance from China that he felt free to speak openly of his life there,” Ma writes as Candace prepares to cut her ties with New York, her chosen home despite its growing decrepitude. In the absence of the human, Ma is attenuated to the changing landscape of the new cities Candace greets on her journey west: the laundromats and subways, kiosks and storefronts, and artificial structures that make up what is left of humanity.
Candace’s story enacts an evocation of loss: of belongingness, one’s motherland, and direction. With loss comes an overwhelming sense of desperation and an unavoidable awareness of one’s own mortality, twin factors that push Candace to act out to ensure her own survival. Her eroded relationships signify a growing dissatisfaction with her lot, and when circumstance intervenes to cut her off from everything familiar, including her boyfriend Jonathan, Candace’s persistent sense of ennui falls short of grieving, leaving her stranded and alone amongst a few lagging strangers in the abandoned metropolis. Scenes of slow death surround her as she mourns the city she loves, her photography and blogging taking on a ritualistic quality. Death, the final arbiter, is figured as ordinary and merciful in these moments, setting up a clear distinction between the human and inhuman. (One of the book’s recurring motifs is putting the zombified fevered out of their misery.) The mixture of intense vulnerability and desensitized apathy that make up Candace’s character leave her fragile and prone to emotional outbursts. These ruptures point to the fracturing of her identity in the wake of several small tragedies, from the “stalk” shootout of a fevered family at dinner to the destruction of her remaining iPhone photos by the group leader, Bob.
By drawing up zombified actions against the humane, Ma directs our attention to the space Candace uneasily occupies, whether at work or among the band of survivors: an abject solitariness excluded by definition from the groups it rubs up against, existing at the margins of a shared life. Ma’s ambiguous, overlapping portrayals of robotic consumption versus impassioned living—group mob mentality versus total isolation—are what brings Candace’s uniquely hued experience into focus, asking us to question the way we lead our own lives, and to what end.
Ling Ma received her M.F.A. at Cornell University and her B.A. at the University of Chicago. She has published in Granta, Playboy, Chicago Reader, Vice, Ninth Letter, and ACM, among others.