When Severance opens the apocalypse is underway and people are madly googling survival tips before the internet ‘cave[s] into a sinkhole’ and the electrical grid shuts down. Yes, it is another post-apocalyptic survival tale. But like many recent post-apocalypses, the humanity-ending event is kind of beside the point. Instead, in Severance Ling Ma has written an ode to the Millennial generation and the intensely, insanely capitalist world in which they live, but with zombies … sort of.
When the book goes back to the beginning of its tale, Candace is contemplating her future. She is in a fading relationship with Jonathan. Disillusioned with life in New York, he wants to leave the rat race and move to the country. He wants to avoid the future, which he sees as:
… more exponentially exploding rents. The future is more condo buildings, more luxury housing bought by shell companies of the globally wealthy. The future is more Whole Foods, aisles of refrigerated cut fruit packaged in plastic containers. The future is more Urban Outfitters, more Sephoras, more Chipotles. The future just wants more consumers. The future is more newly arrived grads and tourists in some fruitless search for authenticity …
But their future, as it turns out, is none of these things. A fungal-based disease called Shen Fever, which started in the Chinese province of Shenzen and is spreading, is about to bring down civilisation. Shen Fever attacks the brain and effectively turns people in zombies. After early flu-like symptoms people become unresponsive and trapped in recurring behaviours from deep in their past.
For the most part, from what we had seen, the fevered were creatures of habit, mimicking old routines and gestures they must have inhabited for years, decades … They could operate the mouse on a dead PC, they could drive stick in a jacked sedan, they could run an empty dishwasher, they could water dead houseplants … They were more nostalgic than we expected …
When the reader first meets Candace the apocalypse has happened and she has fallen in with a group of nine survivors, people who have managed to avoid Shen Fever and are on the road from New York to Chicago. The group is being led with an almost cult-like fervour by a man called Bob to a promised land that he calls ‘the Facility’. Along the way they loot houses, an activity that Bob calls ‘stalking’, and which is attended by a series of bizarre rituals but also involves killing the fevered if they find them.
But Ma is just as interested in Candace’s past – her relationship with her parents, who emigrated from China to Utah in search of a better life, her post-college life of joblessness and random photography, falling into a job with a company that outsources book production back to China, and then staying on at the company as the world collapses around her. This story is the heart of Severance and it is in this respect that it has much more in common with Weike Wang’s recent debut Chemistry than The Walking Dead.
Ma’s largest and, in some ways easiest, target in Severance is rampant consumerism. Candace’s job is sourcing third-world suppliers of bibles, requiring her to be unconcerned about the conditions in which the workers live or work so long as she can squeeze the price down:
The company had huge collective buying power, so we offered even cheaper manufacture rates than individual publishers could achieve on their own, driving foreign labour costs down even further.
At one point Candace travels to China, staying in luxury and touring the sweatshop factories in which her bibles are produced. It is not random irony that the disease that ravages the world comes out of these factories and travels not by human-to-human transmission but from objects to humans.
At one point, while in Hong Kong as part of her trip, even Candace, a seasoned shopper, is boggled by the shopping options:
Take a Louis Vuitton bag, for example. You could buy the actual bag, a prototype of the actual bag from the factory that produced it or an imitation. And if an imitation, what kind of imitation? An expensive, detailed, handworked imitation, a cheap imitation made of polyurethane, or something in between? Nowhere else was there such an elaborate gradient between real and fake.
Severance is also a book about memory. About how we hold on to the things that are important to us but are also often held back by our pasts.
Memories beget memories. Shen Fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories. But what is the difference between the fevered and us? Because I remember too, I remember perfectly. My memories replay, unprompted on repeat.
Later, in relation to ‘stalking’ through a mall, Candace considers how this is just a matter of memory:
You’ve been here before, if not this exact place, then variations of it … You are remembering, even though you have not set foot in a mall since you were a teenager … And because memories beget more memories, you always remember more than you think is even there.
It is only about two-thirds of the way through that Severance becomes the post-apocalyptic thriller it is also threatening to be, when Bob becomes more crazy and Candace has to find a way to escape and make her own life.
But Ma manages to takes these post-apocalyptic tropes and own them. She understands the genre enough (even including a cute digression on the difference between vampire and zombie narratives) to pay homage to it. Dawn of the Dead had its heroes barricaded in a shopping mall. Ma does something similar but here the enemy is not the fevered but, as is common in zombie narratives, the people who survive. These are the people who have not learnt the lessons that Candace has been forced to learn, who have, in some ways, failed to move beyond their past and grow up.
Ling Ma has produced another thoughtful apocalypse, with a flawed but recognisable protagonist. Like so many of the recent crop of post-apocalyptic books (Station Eleven or Good Morning, Midnight or When the English Fall), the tropes of the genre are just a jumping off point for an exploration of humanity. While it is not a future that any reader would wish upon the world, Ma is able to use this vision to challenge and engage her readers and expose modern society.
This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.