Severance / Ling Ma / Picador, 05/2019 – $17 (Paperback)
The routine has become automatic. In the mornings I stand bleary-eyed at the counter and wait for the kettle’s wail. I look at emails for work or articles for class or ads for eco-friendly activewear. It doesn’t matter. There are classes in the afternoon, and then homework after that. I punctuate the work with meals or with a walk around the circular paths of the housing complex where I stay with my mother. The routine has variations, but the texture remains consistent, each day cut from the same cloth.
This is life in quarantine. But, aside from the change in scenery, it is much the same pattern that I lived as a student in New York City before the campuses and streets and neon junctions of Times Square emptied. Now, in an ever-shrinking space with an invisible threat on my doorstep, the obviousness of this routine has been magnified, as has its meaninglessness.
This examination of habit is at the heart of Severance, Ling Ma’s eerily prescient 2017 pandemic novel. In Severance, the pandemic is routine itself. Shen Fever, a virus that begins among Chinese factory workers, is a plague of mindless repeated action that causes the affected to exist in a zombified pantomime of their daily lives. In one scene, an infected family sits down to dinner, scraping their forks and knives across empty plates. In another, an employee at Juicy Couture continues to fold tracksuits for display, although the streets and store are lifeless. These images evoke the traditional pillars of American society–the nuclear family, the devoted laborer, the resilient middle class–and render them vulnerable.
The novel’s protagonist is Candace Chen, a young woman who oversees the design of specialty Bibles for an intermediary company in the publishing world. Even when Shen Fever comes to New York and her employers begin to distribute masks, even when her colleagues disappear, even when the streets fall silent, Candace’s work persists. Promised a massive paycheck to oversee operations while everyone else remains quarantined, Candace takes up residence in her abandoned office building. While the world is consumed by plague, Candance is consumed by a job that has become increasingly irrelevant. In a world newly devoid of paychecks and the people who sign them, capitalism is painted as the most mindless routine of all.
Severance makes clear that one cannot tell a pandemic story without telling a class story as well; although the virus begins by disproportionately affecting the lower and middle classes, the novel does not take it seriously until it reaches Candace’s bourgeois literati circle. Even then, it is framed as an opportunity. For Candace’s boyfriend, it is the opportunity to, quite literally, sail into a new life free from the constraints of the working world, while for Candace, her coworkers’ vulnerability to the virus becomes the leg-up she needs to secure a promotion. The characters pursue their ambitions with such numb, rote diligence that the line between them and the infected blurs into nonexistence.
Ling Ma’s strength as a storyteller is impressive, but it is her critic’s eye that makes Severance such a formidable work. Of the many objects of her criticism, none receives as much excoriating attention as the notion that, in the face of disaster, we can carry on as we always have. By magnifying it through the lens of illness, Ling Ma makes routine both all-important and arbitrary. Meaningless actions become sinister, and going through the motions becomes fatal. If this is life as usual, it is clear that such a life can no longer continue.
Towards the end of Severance, Candace is on her way back to the empty office when her elevator lurches to a stop between floors. Despite the numerous horrors she has faced throughout the novel, this is the first time that readers truly see her panic. Against the overwhelming and incomprehensible backdrop of a world ravaged by pandemic, the simplicity of a broken elevator is the thing that registers. When the world has moved beyond recognition, the minutiae of her routine has become of paramount concern, and its failure represents the final dissolution of the familiar. In other words: she can only worry about what she knows how to worry about.
Later, as she tries in vain to contact someone about repairing the elevator, Candace looks outside of her office window and, for the first time, notices that the city is empty. Ling Ma writes: “There were no tourists, no street vendors, no patrol cars […] Candace walked around the perimeter of the office, trying to spot a fire truck or a police car pulling up outside, trying to discern a siren in the distance, something.”
As an abstract concept, an apocalypse seems overblown, unimaginable. In concrete terms it looks like this: the collapse of bureaucracy, the inability to access emergency resources, an elevator that won’t rise, a society in which things cannot function as they ought to.
I read Severance in one sitting, on the long flight from New York to Los Angeles for what was supposed to be my spring break, but was now an interminable exile from the city I have grown to call home. Covid-19 had not yet exploded in the city, but my flight was nearly empty. There was the sense that things were bad and about to get worse, but no real sense of what that “worse” would look like, nor any way to conceive of when we would hit the “worst.” With the back six rows of the plane to myself, I devoured Severance as if it held the antidote to the uncertainty that clouded my life. However fantastical, I needed some image of what was to come.
Much of the novel haunts me now–the image of an empty Times Square that would later be echoed in countless viral photos, the fear of going outside, the sense of futility every time I don a mask–but nothing has rung as clearly and viciously true as Candace’s realization that she can no longer depend on the institutions of public order for help. The arrival of Covid-19 has not been the end of the world, but it has been the end of life as we know it–the end of reliability.
So I stand alone at my kitchen counter with my bleary eyes and my kettle. I look at emails for work or articles for class or ads for eco-friendly activewear. It still doesn’t matter. As I wait for the next iteration of my day to begin, I am reminded of the Severance’s final reflection on a different kind of routine:
“To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”
If there is any comfort to be found in an old routine, it is that it represents the vestiges of a life that once existed and will exist again. Life cannot, and will not, go on as usual, but it can morph into something better. After all, in a world that remakes itself each day, perhaps we can too.
Sofia Montrone studies Creative Writing in Columbia College. She badly misses New York City and all of its impossible systems.