“The end begins before you are ever aware of it. It passes as ordinary” (9).
Severance is Ling Ma’s millennial zombie story. Centered around the, now, particularly chilling idea of a global pandemic, the story is a meditation on identity, work, and the need to find something meaningful to fill our time. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.
Today we’re going to talk about chapters 1-4 of Severance.
The pandemic story has long been a staple of fiction. From Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez to Blindness by José Saramago to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, the way in which an unknown biological entity has the potential to completely upend society has always fascinated us. Ling Ma takes this idea in a new direction by not just imagining the destruction a new fungal infection could cause in 2011, but also exposing how we are already infected by the need to fight against an unseen enemy that has no cure: work. Severance is about the routines we create to fill our lives and the belief that we have to achieve something meaningful, even if we don’t yet know what that means for us. It is a story that is specific to a generation that was told that we could be whatever we wanted if we just went to school, only to find out that wasn’t true. It is also about the special pressure felt by immigrants and children of immigrants to not waste the opportunities that their parents’ sacrifices have given them. It is a distinctly American story, and it is a story that will feel real to many readers in many ways.
Candace Chen is an ordinary twenty-something living in New York. She has held down an office job for five years and maintains a photography project on the side. She works for Spectra, a production firm in publishing that is paid to coordinate book production. Because they outsource to printers in Southeast Asia, mostly China, they’re able to offer cheaper manufacturing rates than individual publishers. Candace is a Senior Product Coordinator of the Bibles division. She ended up there by chance. One of the men she was sleeping with gave her his brother’s business card, saying that the company, for which his brother is the CEO, was looking for an assistant. The fact that she has no experience or interest in the field isn’t important; it’s a job.
On the day that the story opens, Candace’s boyfriend Jonathan is breaking up with her. He tells her that he’s leaving New York in a month; he finds the city boring and doesn’t like what it turns people into. His plan is to sail with his friend on a yacht and end up in Puget Sound in Washington state. He can see the future will only consist of ever-increasing rent prices, more condo buildings, more luxury housing, and more chain stores that are popular among the middle and upper-middle classes. According to Jonathan, the future just wants more consumers. Candace doesn’t disagree with him. Her salary is just enough to pay her rent and bills and buy some luxury makeup items, but she has very little in savings or retirement funds. She won’t be able to afford the rent in any of New York’s five boroughs within the next ten years. He says that she should come with him, and when she asks why, he says, “Because you hate your job.” She asks what they would do, and he says they could take part-time jobs, and he would finish writing his book and she could work on her photography.
Candace first came to the city in the summer of 2006. Her mother died, she graduated from college, and then she moved. She didn’t put much thought into it; most of her college friends were moving to New York and it seemed like the default choice. In the beginning, they didn’t have jobs. They sat at sidewalk cafes and drank expensive cocktails well into the evening. She had a series of casual relationships with men, one of whom was an economist and the author of a book titled You’re Not the Boss of Me: Labor Values and Work Ethic Among America’s Millennial Youth. He appeared on a cable television show saying that the millennial generation had different values than the rest of America: they didn’t want to work; they just expected money. According to him, the problem wasn’t education, as millennials are the most educated generation of the workforce; the problem was motivation. This man is the same one who will give Candace his brother’s business card, at whose company she will work for the next five years.
Candace remembers that when she first moved to the city, she started a photo blog called NY Ghost, featuring photos of the city with the intent “to show new, undiscovered aspects of New York from an outsider’s perspective.” When her friends started getting internships and entry-level jobs, she used to spend time alone, walking through the city with her digital camera and taking photos of ordinary things, like trash bins or pigeons. When she got home, she would upload the photos she liked to her blog. “The ghost was me,” she says, referring to her decision to keep the blog anonymous. What she enjoyed most about it was that it gave her a routine. All that summer, Monday through Friday, from 10am through 6pm, she went out and walked through the city. She’s since stopped updating the site and rarely takes photos anymore, believing her work to be nothing more than copies of the same photos everyone takes of the city and puts on calendars and souvenirs.
Unlike her peers, Candace didn’t need a job right away. At 26, both of her parents had died, and she would’ve been able to live off of the money she inherited for at least another ten years. However, she needed a life that was more than just walking. She remembers hearing her parents have the same fight they always had: her mother wanted to go back to China and her father wanted to stay. He said the only good jobs in China were government jobs and he didn’t study hard in university “just to sit around and take bribes.” Her mother argued that his friends had government jobs and they were happy, plus she had family back in China. He said it wasn’t all about him; it was about providing more opportunities for Candace. After Candace received the business card for Spectra, she felt like crying. Whether she felt as though she were disappointing her parents or she was feeling the looming despair of entering a job that didn’t fulfill her is unknown, but as she climbed out of her window to sit on the fire escape, she met her downstairs neighbor, Jonathan.
The morning after Jonathan breaks up with her, Candace arrives at her office late. The 200-some employees are all gathered in a meeting. Spectra CEO Michael Reitman is saying that the company takes the health of their employees seriously. Their business depends on overseas suppliers, particularly those in southern China, so they’re taking precautionary measures with the announcement of the new Shen Fever. Shen Fever is a fungal infection transmitted by inhaling spores. No one is sure how it arrived in the U.S., but the popular theory is that it was transported through a shipment of goods from China. The disease is difficult to detect in the early stages. Symptoms include memory lapse, headaches, disorientation, shortness of breath, and fatigue. These symptoms are often mistaken for those of the common cold, so people are usually unaware that they have been infected in the early stages when they are still functional. Later-stage symptoms include signs of malnourishment, a lapse in hygiene, bruising on the skin, and impaired motor coordination. The disease progresses over the course of one to four weeks and eventually results in “a fatal loss of consciousness.” The New York State Department of Health hasn’t issued any work restrictions yet, but Spectra has decided to distribute personal-care kits to all employees. These include two N95 masks and latex gloves, all bearing the Spectra logo. There are herbal remedies, a brochure explaining the company’s extended insurance plan, and nutrition bars from a health company for which they previously produced a cookbook. Candace immediately eats one of the bars, as she skipped breakfast that morning. She’s most struck by how normal everything still seems.
Candace has been with the group of eight other survivors for two weeks. She was one of the last people to leave New York. At that point, the infrastructure had collapsed, the internet was gone, and the power grids were down. The group found her while they were making their way toward the building in the Chicago suburbs they refer to as “the Facility.” She was driving a taxi, and with the highways clogged with abandoned vehicles, a moving taxi was unusual. Candace describes the group as professionals with titles that don’t explain what they really do. They’re brand strategists and human resource specialists and personal finance consultants. The truth is that these seemingly important titles have left them completely unprepared to deal with the end of the world.
As they sit around a campfire one evening, their leader, Bob, says that the fevered aren’t really alive. It’s somewhat true. From what they’ve all seen, the fevered mimic old routines and gestures, habits they’ve performed day after day for years and decades. Todd, a member of the group, says it’s like they’re in a horror movie, one with vampires or zombies. Candace objects to this idea, saying that the fevered don’t attack them or try to eat them, but Bob says, “When you wake up in a fictitious world, your only frame of reference is fiction.” Bob then asks her if she’s religious and says he’s been finding comfort in the Bible lately. He says the one thing they have in common is that they’re all immune to something that killed a large part of the population; this means they’re special. For Candace, who stopped going to church after high school, being a survivor is arbitrary; it has no special meaning.
Bob’s beliefs border on those of a cult leader. No one can start eating until someone, usually Bob, has said grace. He was the one who chose the Facility as a destination. They group spends most of their days driving to the Facility, but on some days they stalk streets and towns, picking houses or shops to go into to take what remains. Each stalk follows a specific pattern. They start by taking off their shoes and holding hands; they recite a mantra, and then Bob prays, thanking the Lord for whatever the stalk provides and asking for strength to continue on their journey. They each say their full names out loud. The men in the group go first, entering the building armed with guns to make sure it’s safe. A “live stalk” means that people are still there, but they’re fevered. In that case, the men herd the occupants into rooms. A “dead stalk” means the opposite, and the men clear the bodies before the women enter. Candace describes a stalk in December that turned out to be live. They see the men directing a mother, father, and son into the dining room of their house. The mother sets the table while the other two sit. They hold hands as if in prayer, and then they mimic the actions of having dinner, cutting imaginary food on their plates and bringing their forks to their mouths. After they’ve finished, the mother puts the dishes away, and then the pattern starts all over again, a ghostly resemblance of the many meals they shared together over the years. As Candace describes it, it’s a fever of repetition and routine.
The group members’ jobs are divided up—the men hunt and the women gather. Candace’s job is to collect entertainment, which includes books, video games and consoles, DVDs, magazines, and board games. Bob always inspects the collection afterward, taking out or adding things as he deems necessary. Candace says she goes into a sort of a trace during these times, getting lost in the categorizing and packing of things into boxes. It’s the feeling she liked most about working.
On this day, she finds a Daily Grace Bible in the house. It’s one of the Bibles whose production she worked on. It’s a casual Bible meant for everyday use that the publisher wanted to appear high-end. However, to make it affordable, they used a leather substitute and sprayed the edges copper instead of using real gold leaf or paint. The ribbon bookmarks are made of a cheap material instead of silk. Most people couldn’t tell the difference anyway, and the Bible sold really well. As she’s looking at the Bible, she hears a sound. It’s a young girl hiding behind the curtains, repeatedly performing the act of reading the children’s book A Wrinkle in Time, chewing her hair, and drinking from a glass of molding orange juice. When Bob comes in with his gun, Candace tries to hide the child, but she’s unsuccessful. He and Adam, another survivor, drag the girl to the dining room and Candace follows them. They have a ritual at the end of every live stalk. In Bob’s words, they “release” the fevered inhabitants. In truth, they kill them, because they believe this to be more humane than letting them cycle through their routines until they die. Bob shoots the mother, father, and son, but leaves the girl for Candace as a lesson to be more observant in the future. In her panic, she keeps shooting and shooting until, finally, one of them tells her to stop. “Good job,” Bob says.
IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS
First, a little bit about the author. Ling Ma was born in Sanming, China, and grew up in the United States in Utah and Kansas. She describes herself as “primarily a fiction writer who’s interested in the narrative tropes and genres of popular culture.” She received her Master of Fine Arts from Cornell University and is currently an Assistant Professor of Practice in the Arts at the University of Chicago. On her biography page for the University of Chicago, she says she hopes to “help students mine their distinct subterranean voices, channel their obsessions, and most importantly, learn to enjoy the process.”1 Severance is her first novel.
In an interview with PBS, who chose Severance as their Now Read This December 2020 book club read, Ma answered a reader’s request to explain the attitude toward the routines expressed in the book. She says, “For me, this book began as a meditation on work….I was thinking about how people reconcile themselves to the type of work that they do, how they make it meaningful for themselves and take pride in it—or don’t. I was also partly inspired by the repetitive nature of factory work, like the type of work that Candace observes when she tours the factories in Shenzhen, China. Since I was a teen, I’ve held the fantasy of spontaneously quitting jobs, which to me is the fantasy of freedom. During periods of unemployment, I learned that there’s no way to inhabit freedom without establishing routines. They break up and change time, create a sense of order and control. They confer meaning. Yet the whole reason I fantasized about quitting is because there are so many jobs with work-related routines that can become suffocating and pointless and flattening. Severance attempts to hold both depictions, and it swerves back and forth between them.”2
Ma additionally explained the process of writing the novel to PBS, saying that “Severance was intended to be a short story, which I began writing in the final months of an office job, as the company was closing its Chicago location….In the beginning, the writing routine sprang from the rhythms and trappings of the office, even as fewer employees showed up and it became deserted. When the office closed, I had no backup plans for employment. I continued writing at home, living off severance and unemployment funds, one plum freelance assignment. I wrote the bulk of Severance in grad school, which I started a year or so later.”3
The word “severance” holds multiple meanings. The most literal definition is “the act of ending a connection or relationship.”4 However, the word is often associated with severance pay, which is an amount of money given to employees when they are terminated from their employment. The amount of severance pay is usually based on the length of employment and is a matter of agreement between an employer and an employee. There is no legal requirement for severance pay.5
The novel is set in 2011, only a few years after the Great Recession of 2008. The Great Recession was an economic crisis that started in December 2007 and led to increases in home mortgage foreclosures and caused millions of people to lose their homes, jobs, and life savings.6 Lasting until June of 2009, it’s considered to be the longest period of economic decline since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Although the recession ended the following year, its effects continued to be felt across the country. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in December of 2011 found that young adults endured the hardest economic suffering.7 Only 54% of young adults between the ages of 18 to 24 were employed then, the lowest number since data collection started in 1948. Additionally, young adults employed full time experienced a greater decrease in weekly earnings than any other age group in the previous four years. Half of adults aged 18 to 34 stated that they took a job they didn’t want just to pay the bills, and 24% said they took an unpaid job just to gain experience. The economic downtown also affected their personal lives, with 31% postponing getting married or having a baby and 24% reporting that they moved back in with their parents after living on their own. Only 30% considered their current job to be their career.
That’s where we’ll end today for the first part of Severance. Join me next week when we’ll discuss chapters 5-12. We’ll learn more about Candace’s unstimulating job in Bible production in pre-pandemic times and how the group continues to navigate their post-pandemic dystopia. Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, subscribe and leave a rating and review in your favorite podcast app. I would really appreciate it, and it helps other book-loving English learners find the podcast. More importantly, what do you think of Severance so far? Do you find it both accurate and depressing, like I do? Leave a comment at theenglishchronicles.com, where you can also find a transcript of each episode, send an email to email@example.com, or find me on Instagram @theenglishchronicles. Until then, keep reading.
- “Ling Ma,” The University of Chicago Division of the Humanities English, accessed August 7, 2021, https://english.uchicago.edu/people/ling-ma.
- Courtney Vinopal, “Author Ling Ma Answers Your Questions About ‘Severance,’” PBS News Hour, December 3, 2020, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/author-ling-ma-answers-your-questions-about-severance.
- Courtney Vinopal, “How the Final Days of an Office Job Inspired this Apocalyptic Novel,” PBS News Hour, December 9, 2020, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/how-the-final-days-of-an-office-job-inspired-this-apocalyptic-novel.
- Oxford Dictionary, s.v. “Severance,” https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/severance.
- “Severance Pay,” U.S. Department of Labor, accessed August 7, 2021, https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/wages/severancepay.
- “Great Recession,” History, accessed August 7, 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/21st-century/recession.
- “Young, Underemployed and Optimistic,” Pew Research Center, February 12, 2012, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2012/02/09/young-underemployed-and-optimistic/.