“Not working is maddening….The hours pass and pass and pass. Your mind goes into free fall, untethered from a routine. Time bends. You start remembering things. Past and present become indistinguishable” (221).
Imprisoned in a store at the Facility, Candace feels adrift without the schedule of work to adhere to. Even if her work was meaningless, it gave her life order. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.
Today we’re going to finish Severance by Ling Ma by talking about chapters 19-26.
Last week, we learned more about Candace’s parents and their struggle to fit in and establish a new life in America. Their hopes are always to provide more opportunities for their daughter. Left back in China and without her mother’s clear daily routines, Candace becomes an angry and bitter child. Adult Candace works for Spectra for five years and accepts an offer to keep the office open after most of the other employees and management transition to a remote work program. She has no family to return to in the U.S. and wouldn’t have anything else to do. In the current timeline, Candace is punished for what happened with Ashley and Janelle. Bob locks her in her cell and says they’ll look after her and her unborn baby. We also talked about Ling Ma’s use of the immigrant narrative as the backbone of an apocalyptic story, as well as the high expectations of immigrant parents and the way millennials’ opinions about jobs differ from those of other generations. Today, the two timelines will converge and we’ll find out how the story ends.
The remaining Spectra employees are confined to one floor. Most of them are young, remaining out of a sense of ambition and the hope that their careers will advance once the pandemic has passed. Candace mostly keeps to herself, not wanting to get involved in any office competition. However, work slows down and is practically gone by the second week. She’s getting bored, so she sends a request for a reprint to Phoenix Sun and Moon Ltd., the printer she visited on her first trip to China. She receives a response from Balthasar, her tour guide, saying that the company is no longer accepting new print jobs, and he wishes her well. She sends an email back saying that it’s not a new print job; it’s a reprint of the Daily Grace Bible. She emphasizes that he’s turning down an opportunity for work and they’re still in business despite these “trying times.”
Candace thinks about going home in the middle of the day, but she hears laughter and determines that it’s coming from the floor below. It turns out to be Blythe and Delilah, another employee, and they’re drinking the alcohol from the party supply closet and watching a sitcom on the TV. They tell her to come in and pour her champagne. A lot of people have quit and they thought she had, too. Most are going to spend time with their families, giving up the fulfillment checks promised to them if they stayed until the end of November. Candace says she’ll probably stay; she’s made it this far and would like to get paid. Blythe asks if it even matters at this point. The city’s infrastructure is failing: public transportation has been reduced to shuttle buses, many stores have shut down, Wi-Fi is hard to get, and a tower crane even fell on pedestrians a few days ago. They haven’t had contact with management in two weeks. Blythe says there’s nothing keeping them there; no one will even notice when they’re gone. Candace wishes them good luck and walks back to her office. Waiting for her on her computer is an email from Balthasar telling her that 71% of their workforce has become fevered. The company will cease operations at the end of the week. He’s leaving the next day, as his daughter has also become fevered and the family would like to spend her last days together. Almost all of his colleagues are experiencing something similar. He says he’s pleased they worked together, but he suggests she leave and spend time with her family. What he doesn’t know is that she doesn’t have a family to spend time with.
Soon, the building Spectra is in is completely empty except for Candace. The elevator is no longer safe to take after she gets stuck in it, and she has to start climbing 32 floors to her office. Times Square is also completely deserted; not even police cars drive about. Candace takes a photo of a carriage horse trotting down the street by itself, but there’s no one to show the photo to. This is when she decides to look up her old blog and upload the photo. She continues to go to work but has decided that Spectra is now the headquarters of her blog NY Ghost. If there’s no more work to do, she’ll make her own work. She posts once in the morning, leaves during lunch to take more photos, and posts once again in the evening. Her schedule reminds her of when she used to walk through the city for hours.
By October, all the major media outlets have stopped publishing and people come to NY Ghost for news. They start requesting photos and news of their favorite places, and Candace treats their requests as assignments. She organizes the requests and makes a chart to fulfill, creating an agenda for each day. One day, she passes a clothing store on Fifth Avenue that looks so clean she thinks it’s open. There’s a saleswoman inside, folding and refolding polo shirts, clearly fevered. Candace posts a 30-second video of the woman, moving with calm and ease. The post becomes both the most popular and most controversial one on her blog. Some readers express concern for Candace’s safety, while others question why she feels the need to keep doing this. One even asks how they know Candace isn’t fevered herself.
One morning, she waits for a shuttle bus so long that she calls a cab. A man named Eddie comes to pick her up and says he doesn’t get many passengers in Brooklyn anymore. Sometimes he gets in the cab anyway and drives around. “You gotta do something, right?” he asks her, mirroring her own reasons for continuing at Spectra. When he drops her off at the building, they exchange names and she says maybe she’ll call him again when she needs another ride.
By November, the shuttle buses have stopped running and Candace has completely moved into the Spectra office. One morning, she leaves the office to take more photos, but as the door closes, she realizes she’s forgotten her key card and is locked out. She goes outside to try to find a rock to break down the door and sees a food cart. She goes to an ATM to withdraw money, but when she looks at the receipt, she notices that her balance is much higher than expected. It’s November 30. She’s fulfilled the terms of her contract. She ends up wandering around the city and sees a women’s accessories store. The only other time she was there was when she was thinking about leaving Spectra a little over a year after starting. She couldn’t see herself being a project coordinator long term. “Just because you’re adequately good at something doesn’t mean that’s what you should do,” she told herself. That day, she gave Michael her two weeks notice, saying she just couldn’t see herself there long-term. He responded that she was a great project coordinator and she was young; she was perhaps under the impression that everyone got to do what they wanted for a living. He told her it was her choice, but if you were lucky enough to find something you were good at where people appreciated you, not to take it for granted. He encouraged her to think about it over the weekend and make a decision on Monday. She left the office and went to the women’s accessories store where she looked at delicately made lingerie, thinking that beautiful objects like that could only be hand made by artisans in Italy. When she looked at a tag, she saw they were made in China and Bangladesh and Pakistan. “No matter where you go, you can’t escape the realities of this world,” she thought. She resumed work at Spectra on Monday.
Eventually, she doesn’t see anyone else in the city. She passes by the store where she saw the fevered woman folding clothes and finds her body inside, struck in the head, and the store looted. She realizes that she needs to leave the city immediately. She sees a cab driving slowly down the street. It crawls by and she reaches inside and pulls the parking brake. Behind the wheel is Eddie, staring blankly ahead, his foot never leaving the gas pedal. At this point, she’s seen enough fevered people to know what it looks like. She pulls him out of the cab, climbs in, and drives away. This is how she leaves New York.
From her cell, Candace watches the routines of the others in the Facility. Ultimately, they came to the Facility to work, and they follow the typical work-week schedule, which she finds comforting, even if she doesn’t get to participate in it. In her sleep, she’s haunted by her mother’s voice, saying that “Only in America do you have the luxury of being depressed” and telling her “Get yourself together….Now is not the time to give up. It’s only going to get harder. You need to figure this out.” Awake, Candace decides that the only way to cope with the time is to divide it into manageable sections. She wakes up, meditates, and stretches, following the memorized routine of a YouTube yoga video. She brushes her teeth, washes her face, and applies moisturizer to her body. Then she watches things. That day, she watches Evan and Bob. Their conversation seems to escalate and Bob tries to walk away, but Evan grabs him and they start to struggle. She hears Evan say it’s been three weeks, and he tries to grab the keychain on Bob’s belt, but Bob gets free, and he tells Evan not to do that again.
Candace hears Bob walking through the mall alone at night, his keys jangling from his belt. For Bob, the Facility is more than just a place to live in; it represents who he thinks he is and what he believes his place in society to be. He creates and enforces rules and sees the others as his subjects to either reward or punish, offering compliments as a means of control. However, he’s just vulnerable enough to elicit sympathy, to encourage the others to make excuses for his behavior, and to make them think that if they just work with him a little, things will get better. He’s essentially every controlling boss that toxic corporate culture has created. Candace doesn’t want her child to grow up in a group controlled by him. All she needs is one key to get to one car so she can drive away.
One morning, Rachel tells Candace that Bob wants her to come downstairs; it’s a special occasion. Candace asks if it’s Christmas and Rachel tells her, with pity in her voice, that it has already passed. Everyone is downstairs except for Evan. The table is decorated and an array of breakfast items is set out. Genevieve says grace, thanking God for the meal on their one-month anniversary in the Facility. Bob asks for someone to get Evan, then turns his attention to Candace. He says he believes her confinement period has provided her the opportunity to see the error of her ways and correct her behavior. They’re accepting her back into the group and giving her the privileges that were taken away, one by one, up until the birth of her child. He insists she start eating, but Todd calls out for Bob, saying he can’t wake Evan.
Todd and Adam remove Evan’s body from his cell. They don’t know exactly what happened, but he wasn’t breathing and they found some pills nearby. Candace then learns that Evan was also imprisoned in the Facility. Later, Candace falls asleep and has a vision that she believes is too vivid to just be a dream. Her mother sits down next to her and tells her she needs to figure all of this out, including Evan’s death. All of her friends are gone now; what does this mean for her? Candace says that as long as she’s pregnant, Bob is invested in her welfare, but it’s clear that she barely believes that. Her mother asks if she thinks she’ll really have the chance to escape after the baby is born. The time is now.
That night when Rachel brings her dinner, Candace asks her to tell Bob she needs to see him about the baby. Bob comes by when everyone else is asleep. Candace says that she feels like her mental and physical health are suffering. She wants to discuss what needs to happen for him to release her. He says it’s hardly a prison. She gets all the food she needs and they take her out for walks. Her situation couldn’t be better. He then asks her why she thinks he chose the place. He reveals that he used to go to this mall when he was younger. His parents fought a lot before they got divorced, and he would just walk around the mall and play games in the arcade. The mall is important to him. He knows they don’t respect it or him or the rules, but she and the other three put everyone’s lives in danger.
At 5am, the time has come for Candace to break out of the Facility. She reaches the store where Bob is staying, but there are no keys. Instead, she hears them jangling. Bob comes out of the store and walks past her, no emotion on his face. She wonders if he’s sleepwalking and follows him down an escalator. There’s a stain on his thin T-shirt, which is unusual because he never dresses casually around them. She realizes what’s happening and runs in front of him; his eyes register no recognition and his gaze stays fixed in the middle distance. Bob is fevered. Candace pushes him until he falls backward, and, intending only to grab his keys, starts kicking him, thinking of the Spectra CEO telling her that she’s done a tremendous job. All of her workplace frustrations unleash on Bob, and he doesn’t try to defend himself. Adam sees her and tells her to stop before she does something she regrets, but she tells Adam not to tell her what to do and unhooks the keys from Bob’s jeans. She walks toward the parking lot doors, sees Rachel, and yells for her to come with her. She gets into a car and looks behind to see if Rachel has followed her, but there’s no one. Candace drives away, finally free.
Candace just wants to get as far away from the Facility as possible, and she ends up going in the direction of Chicago. After a while, the highway turns into Milwaukee Avenue, which she remembers, from Jonathan’s stories. Her plan is to get to Chicago, rest, get supplies, and then figure things out. As she gets closer to the city, the street becomes jammed with abandoned cars. She considers leaving Milwaukee to go a different way, but then decides against it. This street is the one thing that feels familiar, even if it’s a second-hand form of familiarity. Finally, she enters Chicago. The skyline comes into view, and she realizes she’s been in Chicago before. When she was young, she and her mother used to follow her father on business trips. She doesn’t remember much about that trip, except for the downtown area where she and her mother walked around while her father was at his conference. Her mother had asked her what she thought it would be like if they lived there; her mother could resume her career in money management, working in a big building like the one whose lobby they were standing in while they waited for the rain to stop.
As Candace is driving, she sees stops for the 56 Milwaukee bus and thinks about how, in her mother’s alternate life, she would have taken that bus to go to work in the morning and come home in the evening. To live in a city is to not only adapt to its rhythms, she thinks, but to take pleasure in them, enjoying the repetition of routines year after year. As Candace continues down Milwaukee Avenue, the street becomes more and more congested until she can go no further. The car dies, having run out of gas. She looks ahead, seeing more of the skyline and the city in front of her. Candace gets out of the car and starts walking.
IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS
When asked by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop about the conflict between Candace and Bob in the Facility, Ling Ma explained that she always knew tensions would arise between the two and that Candace wouldn’t act until she absolutely had to. The group of survivors is not unlike a group of co-workers. Ma said Candace “thinks she can compartmentalize herself and not really show her hand. I thought of this band of survivors as a roving office in some ways. They don’t know each other very well, and they may not naturally click as personalities, yet they’re forced to spend a lot of time together, working on their various task assignments. Bob is the boss because he decides to be. It doesn’t take a lot to make a group of people bend to your will.”1
It’s hard to read Severance now and not notice some of the eerie similarities the Shen Fever pandemic shares with that of COVID-19. Ma was asked about this by a participant in PBS’s Now Read This book club, who wanted to know what research enabled Ma to predict the future so well. Ma responded, “While there were many sources that inspired the novel, I’ll just zero in on one aspect here. When I worked at office jobs, I often observed employees bringing up pretty reasonable work-related concerns to management, who would then minimize or dismiss those issues offhand. The company line would typically be, ‘There are no problems,’ even when it was so clear to employees that things weren’t working. This happened frequently enough, this pretending that the current system is perfectly fine, that it seemed symptomatic of workplace culture. In writing Severance, I applied this attitude of denialism to an obvious, undeniable crisis at a larger scale. I think this is why the apocalypse never feels ‘catastrophic,’ but non-urgent and anti-climactic. People are encouraged to maintain the status quo. Candace continues going to work as the infrastructure slowly falls apart….Despite having written it, I was surprised, like everyone else this past year, at how little government action has been taken during an actual pandemic, and how so many in charge pretended that nothing needed to be changed.”2
Severance’s ending is a bit ambiguous. Candace simply drives until she can drive no longer, and then she gets out of her car and starts walking. We don’t know where she goes, whether she survives, or what happens to her baby. There are several theories about what happens here, but the one I’m fond of is that Candace is fevered. Throughout the book, Ma has laid hints that this will happen. We know that the Shen Fever causes people to engage in repeated actions, as if performing their daily routines and habits without meaning. Candace even calls the Shen Fever a “disease of remembering,” saying that the fevered are trapped in their memories. After the incident at Ashley’s house, Evan theorizes that Ashley had been fevered for some time, and Candace realizes the symptoms didn’t appear until something triggered her memories. Although it’s unusual for Shen Fever to be transmitted from person to person, it’s not impossible, and Ashley sneezing directly in Candace’s face may have been the close contact the fungus needed to jump from one person to another. As the book comes to a close, Candace is swarmed by memories. Some of them are hers, such as the sudden resurgence of the memory of her and her mother on their trip to Chicago, and others are borrowed from the stories that Jonathan used to tell her about his life there. The city feels familiar to her, and that may be enough to trigger the fever. More notably, walking is Candace’s routine. When her friends start getting jobs and Candace finds herself alone, she spends her days walking through New York. When she’s alone at the Spectra office after everyone has left, she resumes this habit. It’s natural that this is the routine she would return to in her fevered state. We still have no resolution for Candace, but the resolution for the book seems rather bleak: absolutely no one is safe in this pandemic and work often fails to give our lives meaning.
We’ve reached the end of Severance and I’m curious to hear what you think happened at the end. Send me your interpretations by leaving a comment at theenglishchronicles.com, where you can also find a transcript of each episode, sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or messaging me on Instagram @theenglishchronicles. As always, I 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. Next week we’ll discuss the first half of March: Book One, Congressman John Lewis’s graphic memoir of his involvement in the civil rights movement. Don’t forget that today, Patrons will also receive a new episode of the bonus podcast From the Page to the Screen. In the spirit of Halloween, I’m looking at two film interpretations of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s most famous Gothic fiction writers. Until then, keep reading.
- Jen Lue, “Routine Made Everything Possible: An Interview with Ling Ma,” Asian American Writers’ Workshop, May 9, 2019, https://aaww.org/routine-made-everything-ling-ma-severance-interview/.
- 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.