“I liked working in an office. It took my mind off things” (75).
The truth is that Candace doesn’t entirely hate having to give up wandering around the city and taking photos to work a job that has little meaning to her. Finding meaning in her life continues to be a struggle, but finding routine seems to be a decent substitute. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.
Today we’re going to talk about chapters 5-12 of Severance by Ling Ma.
Last week, we were introduced to the Shen Fever, a fungal infection spread by inhaling spores that causes the infected person to perform routines and habits over and over again in a zombie-like state. Slowly, the fever will start to infect everyone, and the fatality rate is 100%. In the future, Candace will join a group of eight other survivors who are driving toward a Facility in the Chicago suburbs. Led by Bob, the group stalks houses to gather supplies and kill any still living infected individuals as a way of showing mercy. We also talked about Ling Ma’s inspiration for the novel, which she began as the company she was working for in Chicago closed its office, leaving her unemployed. Finally, we discussed the meaning of the word “severance” and how the Great Recession of 2008 has affected millennials like Candace, including their ability to find a meaningful job or career. Let’s see how the Fever continues to spread throughout New York and what that means for Candace and everyone else trying to survive.
Like so many people of her generation, Candace was forced to sacrifice her true interests to work for a job in which she had zero interest. During her interview with Michael Reitman, the CEO of Spectra, she said she was a Visual Studies major and studied photography and that she’s familiar with many of the books in his office. Michael bluntly told her the position she was interviewing for wasn’t about art appreciation; it was about project management. Other companies contracted projects to Spectra, and Spectra contracted the projects to production plants, usually in Southeast Asia. The books they made required more labor than regular books due to their special designs, and that was often cheaper in Southeast Asia. The position she would be filling was in the Bibles division. Candace told Michael that she had no experience in book production, and he responded that no one did. What was important was that she was organized, detailed, and meticulous. He then repeated a lie that is often told to young people embarking on their first corporate jobs: The work would only be as boring as she made it.
Candace wasn’t too worried about the office work. She had worked for a federal home loans bank, filing papers and inputting data, during the time that she took a year off from school to care for her sick mother. She liked the routine of working in an office then because it took her mind off of things. She thought she could do well in this position, too. Blythe, a product coordinator in the same division, said that they needed to hire someone quickly because she would travel to Shenzhen in a few weeks to check on the printing of one of their products. Candace would go with her to learn “the exciting world of Bible manufacture.”
When they were in Shenzhen, Blythe explained that their objective was to handle a problem with the cover of the Journey Bible. Her job was to oversee tests for the new cover printing and make a decision for the client. While she was watching the tests, Candace would go on a tour of the printer, Phoenix Sun and Moon Ltd., one of Spectra’s biggest suppliers. At the printer, they were greeted by Edgar, the Vice President of Customer Relations, and Bathasar, an Operations Director. Balthasar took Candace on the tour, and he seemed snide about the fact that they manufactured Spectra’s Bibles. Candace interpreted this as him being unhappy about the fact that they helped to distribute the text responsible for the United States’s “Christian Euro-American ideologies,” in addition to the fact that clients negotiated costs aggressively, further undercutting the value of the labor they provided. Depressingly, Candace had become part of that process.
Candace left China at the age of six, so her knowledge of Mandarin limited her to short conversations. However, Balthasar decided to test this by speaking to her in Mandarin, which made Candace feel that something important depended on her ability to appear fluent in both languages. Balthasar told her that her Mandarin was very good, which was the opposite of what Chinese immigrants often told her, that her English was very good. These comments about language are a constant reminder to her, and to many first- and second-generation immigrants, that she doesn’t truly belong in either culture.
Candace met another worker from the Fujian province, where her family was from. She wanted to ask him if he knew any of her aunts or uncles, but realized she didn’t know any of their full names. Candace had four uncles, only one of whom was related to her by blood. This uncle was her father’s brother, and the two were nothing alike. Whereas her father was reserved, his brother was loud and emotional. When they visited, his brother yelled at him, saying he couldn’t just come back and expect to be invited into their homes. Candace didn’t know much her other uncle, who is married to her father’s sister, except that he owned a gourmet olive oil store that sold American movies and pornography in the back. The important thing about that uncle was his son Bing Bing, who was Candace’s favorite cousin. Although everyone agreed he was very intelligent, Bing Bing was considered to be the failure of the younger generation. His family cast so many doubts and criticisms on his decisions that he wasn’t successful at anything. Despite this, Candace sometimes imagined moving back to Fuzhou and following her relatives’ advice to relearn Mandarin and marry a Fujianese person. Her life would be both blissful and ignorant and not all that different from the ignorance in which the fevered carry out their actions.
Back in New York, Candace began seeing Jonathan occasionally, and they smoked cigarettes on their fire escape. The building they lived in was being sold to be converted into high-priced condos. They discussed plans for moving and Jonathan offered to help her, saying he’d already rented a truck and his new apartment was near the neighborhood where she planned to move. After the move was complete, they sat on her new fire escape smoking. Jonathan said he knew Candace studied art and asked to see her work. Her college honors project was landscape photography of post-industrial towns in the Rust Belt area of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States. It was supposed to be the first in a series on declining industries in America, but she never applied for the grant that would fund the project. Instead, she moved home to take care of her mother and everything seemed irrelevant after. She rarely took photographs after that.
Candace then asked Jonathan about his fiction writing, and he responded that he was writing a novel about a family in a small town in southern Illinois, inspired by his own family who had lived there for generations. He was the only to leave, first going to Chicago and then creating even more distance by going to New York. He worked for three years as an assistant editor at an independent Chicago magazine that had been acquired by a big media company. The corporate rules at the magazine got progressively worse as time passed. New vacation policies meant people risked losing days they had saved up. The severance package went from being based on the number of years an employee had worked to being a flat fee. The magazine’s founders left and almost all of the senior staff was laid off. At the end of Jonathan’s time there, the staff was almost all people in their twenties who were paid entry-level salaries, and everyone was expected to work late. Those who didn’t comply were fired. He lived in an apartment on Milwaukee Ave. and he took the 56 bus every day, sometimes feeling like he lived on that one street. He reached the conclusion that the odds are against anyone who is employed by a large corporation; the corporation doesn’t see people, but it does crush them. One day, he just walked away from his desk and never came back. That was the one and only time he held an office job; above all, he wanted his time and effort to be his alone.
The group of survivors is split into smaller groups to make their drive to the Facility. Candace rides with Ashley, Evan, and Janelle. At night, Candace lies in her tent and listens to the other three talking about whether they think the Facility really exists. Janelle says that it doesn’t seem unreasonable, but she’s not looking forward to living in the suburbs, a common opinion of many city-dwellers. Ashley says that if she could go anywhere, she would just go to her own house. She’s an only child and talks about her parents often. The three make a pact that if they don’t like the Facility, they’ll leave together. Janelle says Candace can join them, but Evan says she’d probably just want to go back to New York. Janelle says that people were still living in New York toward the end and asks Evan if he read NY Ghost. The three don’t know that this is Candace’s photo blog, which she started updating again once the fever spread. Candace starts falling asleep, and then she hears them whispering and running away across the dry leaves and branches. They don’t return until the sun is starting to rise.
A few nights later, it happens again. When she hears Janelle say “Let’s go,” Candace gets out of her tent and asks where they’re going. They reveal they’re going out on a mini-stalk. They don’t take everything in the houses, just drugs. Janelle says she would have asked Candace to come, but given her “condition,” she thought it was better that Candace rest. Candace asks where they’re going that night and Janelle says it’s a little different: Ashley’s house is nearby. Candace asks if she can join them.
The group walks together along the side of the road. Their plan is to get the marijuana that Ashley has hidden under her bed, but she’s also excited to show them the home where she grew up. She hadn’t been in touch with her parents when the fever hit; her mother was a waitress and her father was a truck driver and they didn’t approve of her moving to New York to study fashion. They believed she was just accumulating student debt for no reason. Although they have no confirmation, everyone assumes their family members have been victims of Shen Fever, so when they reach Ashley’s house, Evan insists they go through their usual pre-stalk ritual. When they get inside, they find dishes and old food on the floor; the air smells like cigarettes and mildew, and they hear what might be rodents running throughout the place. There’s a body sitting in the recliner; Ashley says this is probably her father. Evan says he’ll escort her to her bedroom so they can get the marijuana and leave. As she and Janelle are waiting in the living room, Candace notices maggots crawling all over the body, and she suddenly feels like something is wrong and that they’re not supposed to be there; they shouldn’t be stalking their own homes.
When Evan comes out of Ashley’s bedroom, he has an odd expression on his face. Janelle and Candace follow him to see Ashley rummaging through her closet, trying on clothes and looking at herself blankly in the mirror. Evan says they were looking through shoe boxes under the bed, and then she started trying things on. He tried to tell her they could come back in the morning, but it was like she couldn’t hear him. When Ashley tries on a dress and catches her hair on a zipper, ripping the strands from her head without any reaction, it’s clear she’s fevered. Evan wants to leave and get Bob and the rest of the group, but Janelle says they can’t leave Ashley there. Ashley’s head rolls back as she’s being carried out by Evan and Janelle; Candace looks into her empty eyes, which she compares to the look that someone has when they’re staring at their computer or phone screen. As Candace is lost in thought, Ashley suddenly sneezes in her face. Candace rushes to run water over her face and comes back to find Ashely on the ground, her body limp. Suddenly, she opens her eyes and a sound comes out, a sound that Candace recognizes as pain. Candace runs out of the house and Evan catches up to her. She says they can’t go back and Evan agrees. They leave Ashley and Janelle behind them.
Bob’s waiting for them when they return. He and the others drive to the house, where he leaves Evan and Candace locked inside his vehicle. Evan tells Candace they’re in trouble and shows her a bag of small white pills; he’s been collecting Xanax from the houses they’ve stalked. Candace asks Evan why he thinks Ashley became fevered and he says that she probably got infected a few weeks earlier. Candace thinks it’s strange that she didn’t become fevered until she entered her childhood home, as if the memories and nostalgia triggered it. Evan then asks Candace if she wants one of the pills and she says she can’t, revealing that she’s pregnant. She wonders how a person could possibly keep a baby alive in this world, and Evan says she should just tell Bob; Bob will make sure she gets what she needs. However, Candace doesn’t want him to find out; she just wants to leave with the other three in their group. Evan’s not sure that’s happening anymore. Suddenly, they hear four gunshots. Bob returns and puts his gun in the back of the car. He says he appreciates the fact that they told him what happened, but to understand that what he and Todd and Adam were forced to do was a direct result of their actions the previous night. Candace insists on knowing what happened, and Bob tells her that Ashely was fevered. She knows what they do to the fevered. Janelle wasn’t, but she tried to shield Ashley with her body at the moment that Bob pulled the trigger on his gun. Both are dead. Bob says there will be consequences for their actions, and he’s especially disappointed in Candace.
A few days later, the group arrives at the Facility.
IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS
In an interview with the Chicago Review of Books, Ling Ma was asked about her decision to make Candace a production coordinator of Bibles manufactured in China. Ma said, “I think Bible manufacture is an interesting point of entry to tackle consumerism. Essentially, the trick is selling the same content with different packaging. In the book, it’s referred to as ‘the ultimate exercise in product packaging.’ Also, it’s such a deep irony that the manufacture of Bibles, this emblem of Christianity, depends on low-wage labor in foreign countries. It’s an interesting way to think about Christianity in the era of global capitalism.”1
Ma further stated in an interview with National Public Radio that she was thinking about the repetitive actions of factory work, the same gestures repeated over and over again. In Candace’s case, she was thinking about the repetition of her work routine: waking up, making coffee, and getting on the train. She wanted to exaggerate that pattern and amplify it across the world in an attempt to figure out how one makes a meaningful life in the capitalist system of America. Jonathan represents the life of a typical artist. He doesn’t own many things and believes it’s possible to opt out of the system in some way. However, for Candace, that option is never reasonable.2
Candace’s trip to Shenzhen is a result of Spectra outsourcing its production to countries in Southeast Asia, a practice that is considered to have long-term negative effects for the American economy. Outsourcing is the practice of hiring an outside company to perform services or create goods that were previously accomplished by the company’s own staff. It’s usually done as a way of saving money. It became essential to business in the 1990s.3 There are several problems that arise from the outsourcing of labor. One is that jobs that move overseas don’t usually come back to the country. The lower expenses of operations and wages in other countries make the overall cost of working in these countries cheaper, and the result is that unemployment rises in America. Another issue is that while outsourcing originally began as a way to transfer low-skill jobs out of the country and keep highly-skilled workers, American companies have begun outsourcing those highly-skilled jobs as well, paying engineers and IT specialists at far lower rates than they would if they worked in the US. As a consequence, those who are able to perform highly-skilled jobs will decrease and certain skills will be lost, as there will be fewer opportunities for students to learn them. A third issue is that the manufacturing capacity of the US will decline, and it will take years to regain the equipment and train new workers to rebuild this. Lastly, outsourcing is simply risky, as there always exists the possibility for relations with other countries to change or for a foreign country to suffer economic hardship. If this were to occur, the activities of the companies operating in those countries would also be negatively affected. The profits that these companies gain in the short term are outweighed by the damage caused to the American economy and job market for years to come.4
That’s all for today’s discussion of Severance. Join me next week when we’ll discuss chapters 13-18. We’ll learn more about Candace’s background as a child immigrant and the pressure it’s put on her as an adult, as well as what happens to New York as the city slowly starts to break down. 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. What are your thoughts on the habits and routines that the fevered mimic? In what ways do you feel this is representative of our working lives? 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.
- Adam Morgan, “In ‘Severance,’ Ling Ma Destroys New York City,” Chicago Review of Books, August 14, 2018, https://chireviewofbooks.com/2018/08/14/severance-ling-ma-interview/.
- Ling Ma, “In Satirical ‘Severance,’ a Stricken Country Works Itself to Death,” interview by Ari Shapiro, All Things Considered, NPR, August 10, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/08/10/637473748/in-satirical-severance-a-stricken-country-works-itself-to-death.
- Alexandra Twin, “Outsourcing,” Investopedia, last modified May 2, 2021, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/o/outsourcing.asp.
- Angie Mohr, “4 Ways Outsourcing Damages Industry,” Investopedia, last modified June 25, 2019, https://www.investopedia.com/financial-edge/0312/4-ways-outsourcing-damages-industry.aspx.