I first picked up a copy of Ling Ma’s M.F.A. ’15 Severance last year, during my first summer spent living in Manhattan. I was a clueless Californian, who lacked a basic understand of city geography, didn’t know what SoHo stood for and had never heard of Duane Reade, but as I started to get a feel of the city, the city landmarks referenced in Severance started to crystalize in my mind, and Ling Ma’s imagination captivated me.
The novel is narrated through the perspective of protagonist Candace Chen, a Chinese American immigrant in her 20s who works at a Manhattan publishing house and oversees the manufacturing of Bibles in China. Severance takes place during a pandemic of Shen Fever, a fictional fungal infection that is described to deprive its hosts of free will. The story straddles the past and the present: A past in which the reader is shown a montage of Candace’s life in reverse chronological order, and a present in which a group of survivors leaving New York rescues Candace, forcing her to adjust to new group dynamics.
When the pandemic struck New York City earlier this year, I couldn’t help but think about Severance and the many parallels between fiction and reality. Shen Fever originates in a production facility in Shenzhen, China and eventually makes its way to New York City, where any sense of normalcy is turned on its head. New safety protocols are issued, people are encouraged to wear N95 respirator masks, countries implement travel bans and The New York Times begins to tally the number of fevered individuals.
The similarities are striking at first, but beyond the surface-level global health crisis narrative, Severance is also an immigrant family story, a corporate satire and a mirror to our own reliance on capitalistic accumulation. Reflecting on Severance now, there is so much more that we can learn from the alternate history it provides. In the novel, Shenzhen mass produces commodities — like Candace’s specialty bibles — for American consumers. In China, the bibles are produced at a higher efficiency, but this also creates a reliance on Chinese technological advancements that directs the virus back to America.
It is here that Ling Ma perhaps makes one of her most relevant points: Both in our current climate and in the novel, the pandemic is about a global capitalist system that implicates us all. When bigots label the coronavirus as a “Chinese virus” on national television, they are not only encouraging the use of Asian-Americans as a vessel for frustration and hate but also highlighting their own inability accept a basic fact: America has always relied on migrant bodies for labor, even as our country has continued to refuse to accept them as our own. There is immense irony in the adverse effects experienced by the American economy from this “foreign virus,” a tone that is echoed in Severance as well. Similar questions are salient even now especially the question of what happens when the economy and production of consumer goods is valued over human lives.
The capitalism anxiety in the novel increases when Candace choses to stay in New York, fulfilling her work contract that promises a large bonus so long as she stays at work. She remains one of the last survivors in New York City and eventually moves into her office where she stays until the last day of her contract. Ling Ma suggests that Candace’s commitment to work extends beyond an immigrant work ethic — It is also a symptom of an overwhelming reliance on capitalistic accumulation.
Even after Candace flees New York City and the apocalyptic world terminates waged labor, Candace and the rest of the survivors’ focus is on the material. In a move of comical irony, the leader of the survivors promises refuge in a “Facility” which ends up being a mall in a Chicago suburb. Each of the survivors picks abandoned stores to use as personal units until fear and group dynamics take over and Candace, fearing for her and her unborn child’s life, escapes from captivity of the survivors and drives to Chicago.
The ending of the novel serves as a reminder that when the world comes to an end, maybe it’s a world that was set up for only a few to begin with. Maybe the only way forward is to sever ourselves from past conceptions of normalcy in search of something new, something better. Maybe we all need to “get out and start walking.”
Shriya Perati is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Thought Experiments runs alternate Thursdays this semester. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.