[7] Severance by Ling Ma

Book Cover: [7] Severance by Ling Ma

BOOK: Severance
YEAR: 2018
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Candace Chen loves her work and she loves the city. She is a millennial, first generation American, recently orphaned, and working an office job in New York. Absorbed in the routines of urban life and her job managing the publication of specialty bibles, she is oblivious when Shen Fever arrives in the city. The deadly virus from China kills many and transforms others into zombies who become trapped in repetitive tasks. As people flee the city and companies shut down, Candace keeps on working, spending her down-time blogging and photographing the empty city. Soon, Candace too must escape and she finds herself on a quest for a new life with a group of ill-equipped survivors led by a computer programmer named Bob with big promises and a thirst for power.

The seventh book in the LAX LAB climate fiction book club is Ling Ma’s 2018 novel Severance – the office-satire-apocalyptic-zombie-novel that you never knew you needed! While not exactly climate fiction, the themes in Severance are similar and I am confident that the novel will spark some different conversations on climate change.

Though many of us are probably weary of the topic by now, our conversations in the book club still invariably return to the pandemic. We frequently discuss climate change through the lens of our current situation and our personal experiences with lockdown and the altered rhythms of daily life. The one-year anniversary of the World Health Organisation declaring a pandemic has recently passed. Now seems like a good moment to reflect on the pandemic more deeply. I hope that this book will inspire discussions on work culture, sustainability, the relationship between climate change and pandemics, and how to survive the zombie apocalypse.

Urban life
Work culture

[Spoiler alert! If you have not yet read the book, you may wish to turn back.]

'No matter where you go, you can't escape the realities of this world.' (p. 276). Ling Ma’s darkly funny novel Severance tells many realities and stories, in multiple places and times. The dominant story – eerily familiar now – is of a city falling apart during a pandemic. Shen Fever arrives in New York and we witness the erosion of work life and see the city slowly fall into disarray through the narrator Candace Chen’s reminiscences. Interwoven are other stories: the immigrant story contrasted with the apocalyptic survivors' journey and their similar quests for a better life; the story of global capitalism fuelled by rampant consumerism and shifting labour and modes of production; and the satirical tale of contemporary life and work culture.

Ling Ma’s novel Severance touches on many disparate topics and I have no doubt that we will have interesting discussions, be they around pandemics, work culture, global economy, immigration, place and belonging. It will be fascinating to see how we can bring these themes into a conversation on climate change. To inspire our discussions, I offer the following two provocations:

Provocation 1: The very hungry caterpillar

When Candace first visits Phoenix Sun and Moon Ltd in Shenzhen, she is given a tour of the printer’s facilities by Balthasar. In one humidity-controlled room are stacks of the children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar (see below video). It is a story about a caterpillar munching excessively through all kinds of treats before it transforms into a beautiful butterfly. Balthasar hints at the capitalist ideology of the book, questioning why the book is so popular in the United States: ‘The worm is very greedy … He eats all the food and doesn’t share’ What lesson does that teach children? To eat with no—he paused, searching for the word—no conscience?’ (p. 84). Meanwhile in the United States, Candace is unimpressed by her boyfriend Jonathan’s efforts to live apart from this capitalist system. She muses: ‘In this world, money is freedom. Opting out is no real choice.’ (p. 206).

Do you agree that opting out of the system is not a real choice? Are we all destined to be very hungry caterpillars?

How do faith and religion enter into the different stories of the global economy?

(How) do the immigrant story and the survivors' story critique capitalism?

How might we connect these themes to climate change?

Provocation 2: What you do every day matters

‘What you do every day matters’ (p. 63), Candace’s mother tells her while extolling the virtues of a daily skin care regime. Shen Fever exaggerates the everyday, trapping the infected in an endless loop of daily routine. The themes of memory, nostalgia, and forgetting repeat throughout the novel, which mingles present, near past, and distant past. Being too connected to the past is portrayed negatively by different characters. Group leader Bob says that cutting off from the past is necessary for it makes the survivors ‘more free to live in the present, and more free to envision our future’ (p. 115). Though Candace recounts much of her past history, she also seems averse to nostalgia, reflecting: ‘The past is a black hole, cut into the present day like a wound, and if you come too close, you can get sucked in. You have to keep moving.’ (p. 120)

What daily routines are you or would you potentially get trapped in?

What might Severance teach us about time, about past/present/future?

How does the everyday matter in climate change?

How does the act of severance play out through the novel?


Articles, essays, and other non-fiction
‘Here’s what the coronavirus pandemic can teach us about tackling climate change’
Natasha Chassagne, The Conversation, 26 March 2020

‘Ling Ma’s Severance captures the bleak, fatalistic mood of 2018’
Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, 10 December 2018

‘How climate change is ushering in a new pandemic era’
Jeff Goodell, Rolling Stone, 7 December 2020

Severance predicted the slow-burn performance of our pandemic’
Hillary Kelly, Vulture, 18 March 2020

Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century by Andreas Malm

‘“Office politics is, to some degree, horrifying” - Ling Ma on her horror-satire Severance
Michael Schaub, Los Angeles Times, 24 August 2018

The Very Hungry Caterpiller by Eric Carle

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Music and other audio
Unknown Pleasures (1979) by Joy Division

Avalon (1982) by Roxy Music

New Wave Covers the Classics playlist by Mike Sauter

Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese and Chinese Indie & Pop playlist by uniplanet

Emma Arnold