Severance is the hotly anticipated end of days tale by newbie author Ling Ma. It’s a provocative look at the future which shows the dangers of getting caught in a meaningless present and being obsessed with a sentimental view of the past.
This story shifts back and forth in time between chapters but for the sake of clarity and brevity I’ll be discussing it in linear form in this review.
When Candace Chen first moves to New York, the situation is both idyllic and disconcerting. Living off the inheritance from her parents, she wanders the town taking mediocre pictures and finding herself. She posts the photographs to a blog she’s created called NY Ghost, feeling the title to be self-descriptive: The Ghost was me. Walking around aimlessly, without anywhere to go, anything to do, I was just a specter haunting the scene. She fears that if her parents could see her, they would call her disaffected. She thinks they may be right. Even at parties or events, she tells us: I was like a homeless person in my own house. I was enjoying myself, but it was an insulated enjoyment. I was alone inside of it.
Candace comes by her dissociative disorder naturally. She is convinced that her father moved from China to America for “the anonymity. He wanted to be unknown, unpossessed by other’s knowledge of him. That was freedom. “
She knows she needs to break out of the malaise caused by that lifestyle. Eventually, she gets a job at vanity publishing firm, where her position involves coordinating the production of novelty bibles. It is intriguing to her to produce the same product over and over and only change the packaging. The antics of the companies selling the merchandise show how it is consumed but never ingested, and their business practices in no way reflect the teaching contained within their commodities’ pages. Candace is good at her job, even if it leaves her feeling dissatisfied.
Then Shen Fever strikes. At first, it’s a small thing. Contagious but seemingly isolated, with simple, preventive precautions offering false security. No one seems very concerned initially, least of all Candace, who has her own problems to contend with. Her boyfriend wants to leave the city and makes a half-hearted attempt to ask her to go with him. He wants to get away from it all: the endless fake shops, meaningless jobs, and slavery to the American capitalist system. Candace chooses not to accept his offer, so she is perfectly placed to watch the emptying of this American epicenter as the fever slowly consumes everyone around her.
Shen is an unusual form of zombieism in which the victims die slowly from starvation and physical negligence as they perform familiar tasks over and over. In a particularly poignant scene we see a young girl sitting in her family’s library, paging through a book she no longer has the mental capacity to read. Emaciated, with sores that attract insects, she can no longer care for herself or even let others care for her. All she can do is peruse the same story over and over till her life ends. Or someone ends it for her.
Candace stumbles upon that young girl while with a group of survivors, all of them, like her, unprepared for the apocalypse. In life, they had worked jobs in advertising, printing, production and fashion. Now, under the leadership of an odd man named Bob, they are headed to the suburbs of Chicago, to a building he owns there that they call The Facility. It is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the big box stores and outlet shopping malls whose supplies will ensure the group’s survival.
The author has an absolutely amazing grasp of her craft. Her prose, a sheer delight to read, is crisp, clean and crystal clear, and she weaves information into the text naturally, diligently and thoroughly. Her plot is intriguing and her ability to create a scene near awe inspiring. Every time we change views, whether we’re at a party in a small New York apartment or touring a factory in China, her characterizations and setting, and sheer magic in conjuring the moment make you feel as though you’ve entered the text and are experiencing what Candace is experiencing.
The group of survivors left me endlessly curious as to who they are, who they had been and what would happen to them once they reached their destination. There is something almost sinister about Bob, though his behavior is primarily benign and innocuous. That is another of the strengths of the story; we learn names and passing details of the people who surround Candace, but the images are blurred. We know them, but we are also wary of them. The knowledge we have isn’t deep or clear enough to let us picture what they will do next and the situation is so fraught with possible danger that we fear what might happen. That lack of knowledge is a strength in that it emphasizes both the fact one can never really know anyone and that these peculiar circumstances would create an instinctively survivalist culture, where people automatically look out for number one and don’t really trust those around them.
But that lack of knowledge is also a weakness. Characters weave in and out of the story leaving no impact on the reader; even scenes which should have been traumatic left me unmoved. I could appreciate that something awful was happening on the page, but it was happening to strangers, people I didn’t know well and whose situation was so far removed from my own that I couldn’t relate to it. The prose was such that the image was clear, but it was a picture that drew no emotion from me.
Another flaw is that the story lacks subtlety. Candace is the mouthpiece for half a dozen insights on society, all of them delivered with a jackhammer, staccatoed press of words that does not allow for nuance. I knew her opinion but learning it did not invite me to think about or examine my own thoughts on the same issue. That was especially disappointing given the nature of the zombieism; the rote activities performed by the infected and the effect nostalgia could have in terms of the onset of the disease should, perhaps, have encouraged more introspection than they did.
Ultimately, Severance is an excellent zombie story that takes one of the more realistic looks at what might happen if society were to actually begin crumbling around us. If you are a fan of apocalyptic tales at all, I would encourage you to give this one a try. It removes the romanticism, the thrills, the heroism and the adventure and makes you take a long hard look at how very unprepared most of us are for that possible reality. It also reminds us that we will likely be the perpetrators of our own demise.