Book Review | Severance by Ling Ma

Would I have loved this book so much if I hadn’t been reading it in the middle of a pandemic? I think, ultimately, I would. Whilst a global pandemic has taken hold in Ling Ma’s debut novel, it is also largely a conduit in which to explore our modern condition: the millennial malaise, our late-capitalist culture, the American immigrant ‘success’ story. Reading it in the midst of an outbreak just adds an extra layer of contemporary significance and complexity.

In Ling Ma’s America, a deadly pandemic – termed Shen Fever – has spread throughout the country, with a 100% fatality rate. It starts off small; a few bits on the news about how the virus originated in Shenzhen, China, advice to wear masks, but an insistence on adopting a business as usual policy – at least in the Publishing consultancy firm where our protagonist, Candace Chen, works as a project manager, co-ordinating bible production.

Told through a split narrative between Candace’s past and present, with anecdotes from her childhood, stories from when she first moved to New York, and the slow collapse of the city as the pandemic descends, we have the comfort of the old ways, of normalcy, in stark contrast to the new reality. This is particularly profound to read when also experiencing a monumental shift in the ways we live. Ma elegises – but without sentimentality – the fabric of life before, of communion with others, of being in the throng of the city, of seeing life pass by below from your office window. The small pleasures that show you you are part of a bigger whole.

‘The key thing, we reminded ourselves, was never to stop, to always keep going, even when the past called us back to a time and place we still leaned toward, still sang of, in quieter moments. Like the canyons of office buildings all the way down Fifth Avenue. Like all the Japanese and Swiss businessman leisuring through Bryant Park, sipping hot chocolate. Like the afternoon sun cast through our midtown office windows, when it was almost time to leave for all the pleasures of the evening: an easy meal eaten standing up at the kitchen counter, a TV show, a meetup with friends for cocktails.’

Ma’s searing account also puts our millennial lives under a microscope, satirising the ritualisation of our routines – routines that Candace maintains, religiously, even as the world falls apart around her, the city’s careful infrastructure crumbling while she continues to come into the office each day. There are obvious parallels with those whom fall victim to Shen Fever, who are doomed to repeat the mundane actions of their lives, ad infinitum, as their bodies slowly decay.

So the severance here is not only severance from a capitalist corporation that spits you out the moment you are no longer of use, but also severance from community, shared history, and, for Candace, whose parents are Chinese immigrants, from a heritage from which she feels distanced. There are so many layers to unfurl.

In this world of horror meets satire, Ma’s understated and pitch-perfect prose ties it all together, masterfully balancing the narrative threads of past and present. Pandemic or no pandemic, her debut is an impressive exploration of millennial angst and our fractious modern world.

‘A day off meant we could do things we’d always meant to do … 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.’

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