Severance: what are a few zombies compared to late capitalism?


Ling Ma’s Severance is, on many counts, a book tailor-made for me. An aimless, disaffected millennial protagonist stuck in an office job she hates? Zombies as commentary on capitalism and global labor flows without inherently demonizing workers? Cross-cultural belonging and parenting in the context of #AsianAmericanExperience? Cults!? Just add in a queer romance, and this book would have been practically tailor-made for me (there is no queer romance, alas, but one can always hope).

Plus, Ling Ma teaches at my old school now, so, y’know. Obviously I had to read it, in honor of the Chinese-American writing mom I could have had while I was in Chicago.

So. Severance opens with a scenario that probably familiar to most of us: it’s the end of the world, zombie apocalypse style. Except what we have here isn’t an invasion of the undead but Shen Fever, a fungal infection that turns its victims into mindless automatons; and what we have aren’t brain-hungry zombies but plague victims lost to nostalgia, trapped in cycles of their own routines and rose-tinted memories. The fevered aren’t dangerous—they’re not even really infectious, with the disease instead being fungal which means absolute jack shit to me, someone who hasn’t taken a biology class in five years—just very, very sad.   

The question, then, is less about how to fend off impending swarms of creatures ready to eat your brains than how to survive the slow loss of infrastructure that comes from having the majority of your workforce out of commission. For Cadence Chen, our disaffected millennial protagonist, the answer’s pretty simple: do your fucking job, and wait for things to blow over. Cadence works at Spectra, a publisher where she specializes in the minutiae (and oh God there is so much minutiae) of Bible production, and when Shen Fever starts hitting the US, her reaction is to keep on doing what she’s always been doing. If this is perhaps an anti-climatic response to impending apocalypse, it’s also an incredibly millennial one. Bird flu, West Nile, Y2K—when you’ve been through a half-dozen maybe apocalypses in the 2000s, what’s one more semi-demi health scare?   

So Cadence continues making Bibles. It’s why she’s in New York City, it’s what she’s good at, and most importantly, it’s what she knows. New York, for better or worse, is her city, the place she’s lived since her mother’s death, and while she might not have many friends or a job she actually enjoys, her life is still familiar; it’s still home, and because of that, she doesn’t leave.

There’s a metaphor to be found here—multiple, in fact. The fevered as capitalist worker, so stultified into routine they literally cannot conceive of shifting gears even as the world comes to an end; Shen Fever as capitalist karma, exploited Shenzhen finally striking back at the west in the form of a fungal epidemic; Shen Fever as bird flu panic made good, with all the racialized Yellow Peril undercurrents of that scare brought to the fore. All of these allegorical readings are valid, but the one I am most interested in—perhaps selfishly, but hey, this is my blog—is that of Shen Fever as memory.

Shen Fever, as Ma mentions multiple times, is a disease that preys on memory; it lives on nostalgia, victims trapped in repetition of the past. Seen through such a lens, Cadence stands as particularly susceptible to Shen Fever: both her parents are long dead, her long-time boyfriend is AWOL and possibly also dead, and her job and the city where she lives have been definitely destroyed. In between detours into Cadence’s past, we get scenes of her life post-apocalypse, a future in which she’s shifted from following company protocol to following a group of survivors whose leader has decided shades of paranoia and cultish megalomania. No friends, no family, no home—with the future pretty much a crapshoot, Cadence has every right to be wistful for days gone by.

And she is—Cadence misses her mother, the internet, all the old luxuries of late capitalism not yet collapsed under its own weight. Cadence Chen grieves the past, but crucially, she does not let herself be consumed by it. And in a world like the one we live in, one in which the ice caps are melting and Nazis are apparently still a thing, that’s a hell of a choice to make, if one can particularly call it a choice. Severance, for all that it takes the zombie apocalypse as a premise, is not a book defined by dramatic decisions or climactic choices. Things do happen—people get shot, party members are infected—but in general, Ma’s focus is on the everyday, the small shifts in routine and outlook that necessarily accompany the destruction of the world as we know it. Things go explodey boom boom, yes, but Severance’s focus is on the psychological and the existential effects of living in a post-apocalyptic landscape. There’s understated, muted quality to Ma’s prose, almost fittingly wintry at times in its sparseness. It’s a quality you find in a lot of literary fiction (a potential side effect of the MFA-cation of literary fiction?), but it’s also a fitting style for Cadence’s constant state of melancholy. It’s the end of the world, but when you’ve been living in constant millennial burnout, how much different is the apocalypse really?

For all the compelling philosophical issues Severance raises, I also don’t want to neglect some of the smaller, more subtle moments I particularly enjoyed. Severance is a millennial novel, but it’s also a specifically Asian-American millennial novel—and well, as an Asian-American millennial myself, I really appreciated all the little details that spoke to that experience. Cadence visiting China and having people speak to her in English instead of Chinese, the borderline offensive shark fin party spearheaded by Cadence’s roommate, Cadence’s mother’s reverence for Clinique skincare products (guess what I got for Christmas?)—they’re small things, but like the mention of Yakult in To All the Boys I’ve Loved, those details are all the more valuable for their slightness and specificity. It’s lived knowledge, those small things you wouldn’t think about otherwise the way a foreigner wouldn’t automatically think to carry cash for tipping because where else do you tips outside the US?

Similarly, Severance has an attention to place that I found particularly skillful. As someone who lived in Chicago, Ma’s descriptions of specific bus routes and road gripes are the type of tiny, nitty details that speak to actual time spent in the city. (Ma’s descriptions of New York City—where the majority of Severance actually takes place—are also apparently pretty spot-on according to my NYC friends, which makes sense because she’s apparently lived there well). There’s a lovely passage towards the end that, more than anything I’ve read in a while, perfectly encompasses the particular joys of living in a city:

“To live in a city is to live the life that it was built for, to adapt to its schedule and rhythms, to move within the transit layout made for you during the morning and evening rush, winding through the crowds of fellow commuters. To live in a city is to consume its offerings. To eat at its restaurants. To drink at its bars. To shop at its bars. To pay its sales taxes. To give a dollar to its homeless.

To live in a city is to take part 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?”

And another quote, because it so perfectly explains my own experience with Chicago:

“The first place you live alone, away from your family […] is the first place you become a person, the first place you become yourself.”

My parents live in the suburbs, but I have always considered myself a city person. Beijing, Hong Kong, Madrid, Dublin, Paris, Chicago—I’ve been lucky enough to visit all these places and more, and to even make my home in a few of them. Five years of Chicago have led me, apparently, to never shut up about the it now that I am in Los Angeles—and yes, I am slightly self-conscious of that, of being the cliche of the small-town girl desperate to claim a place for herself, but I can’t help it; for better or worse, Chicago is the first place I lived on my home, the place where I feel I grew into myself. I miss it still, have not yet adapted to the spaciousness (and expensiveness!) of Los Angeles, but if there’s one thing I’ve taken from Severance, it’s that there is nothing to be gained from drowning in nostalgia. And so, it is at the risk of sounding like a basic shounen protagonist that I would like to take this book into 2019: to honoring the past without being laden by it, to moving forward even in the midst of impossible times, to forging new selves and surviving new times.

3 thoughts on “Severance: what are a few zombies compared to late capitalism?”

      1. Thanks so much for the heads up! I’m in the process of moving to Chicago right now and hopefully will be able to make this.


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