Severance (2018, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Ling Ma’s debut novel, holds a satiric mirror to the world, displaying the consequences of the rut of routine, consumerism, the crumbling weight of late-stage capitalism, and what happens next. With juxtaposed timelines that blur and connect the present to the past, Ma blends genre and time to create a compelling story that sticks with you long after you’ve read the last page.
Severance follows routine-obsessed Candance Chen, a Chinese-American millennial living in New York City, where everything is “a status symbol and everything costs too much” (11). Employed at a book production company with an office in the heart of Times Square, she is working when she first learns of Shen Fever, an infection transferred by inhaling fungal spores. Those infected eventually become stuck in an endless cycle of routine, ghosts of their former selves. At the end of America’s world, Candance finds herself among a group of survivors, unaware of the danger that lies ahead.
With a frank first-person voice, we see ourselves in Candance’s hyperaware attention to brand names and companies, exposing our own attachment to materialism. Ma’s critical and unnerving depiction of routine through purposeful repetition reveals the dark resemblances between a decaying zombie and an office employee, both creatures of habit whose lives persist “in an infinite loop” (160). In turn, we are forced to place ourselves in this world, to critique our own habits and routines, unsure if we will like what we find.
A winner of the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Fiction, Severance combines uncomplicated, wry prose with well-rounded characters to evoke emotions of nostalgia and human connection, while asking what it means to live and work in corporate America. Brilliantly written, Severance is an engaging coming-of-age immigration story, a satirical office novel, and an apocalyptic adventure overrun with zombies all encapsulated in a powerful book that should be read by those who want to be both haunted and transformed.
Severance by Ling Ma is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux for $26. You can find more information at www.fsgbooks.com.
Ling Ma was born in Sanming, China, and grew up in Utah, Nebraska, and Kansas. She attended the University of Chicago and received an MFA from Cornell University. Prior to graduate school she worked as a journalist and an editor. Her writing has appeared in Granta, VICE, Playboy, Chicago Reader, Ninth Letter, and other publications. She lives in Chicago.
Katy Ross, a New Mexico native, is an MFA Candidate in New Mexico State University's fiction program.