Is It The End of the World, Or Just Another Day at the Office?
On Ling Ma’s Severance, Pandemic Coping, and Grief
I first read Ling Ma’s Severance in November 2019. According to my Goodreads history, I started it on the 9th and finished it on the 16th. In my original review, I wrote, “Absolutely wild book to read in the same week news broke that the bubonic plague resurfaced in China.” Looking back, this sentence might be the literal definition of irony.
Published in 2018 by FSG, Severance is a non-linear dystopian novel and was the winner of that year’s Kirkus Prize for Fiction. Set primarily in 2011, the story is told from the point-of-view of Candace Chen, a Chinese-American visual arts graduate and aspiring photographer who moves to New York City in the mid-aughts after the death of both her parents. She spends five years living in the city, working in the Bible production unit for a publishing company called Spectra, before a mysterious deadly illness called Shen Fever overtakes the world. The book alternates chapters before and after the virus’s impact on the world.
Reading the novel during a similar pandemic was an eerily uncanny experience. The parallels between Shen Fever and COVID-19 felt almost too on the nose at points: both originated in China, and it is months before the rest of the world recognizes the severity of the situation and responds accordingly. While the initial stages of Shen Fever resemble COVID-19—“headaches, disorientation, shortness of breath, and fatigue”—its final evolution is a “fatal loss of consciousness,” turning those impacted into zombies who “are still able to execute rote, everyday tasks.”
Things take a turn once the disease starts to impact New York City. Fearing that she is late for work one morning, Candace walks into her office only to find all of the employees in a company-wide meeting. The head of the company, Michael, explains, “Spectra… take[s] your health very seriously.” The human resources manager then distributes personal-care kits to every employee, containing protective tools like masks and gloves, with the option to purchase more supplies through the company at a reduced rate. Employees are alarmed, but not so alarmed that they stop working.
As Shen Fever worsens throughout the summer, work is the one thing that keeps Candace grounded in her routine: “I got up. I went to work in the morning,” is the opening line of several chapters. And inside the book jacket, the first line the reader notices is, “Is it the end of the world, or just another day at the office?”
As the disease becomes so bad that Spectra can no longer ignore it, the office starts to let people work from home. However, they still need employees to come into the building to make sure it’s maintained. Management offers Candace and several other workers an exorbitant unspecified sum of money to keep going to the office for the next three months. As the weeks go by, however, the rest of the employees either escape New York or succumb to Shen Fever. Candace, the last person in the building, decides to move in, using her former bosses’ office as her own personal bedroom and eating snacks from the employee kitchen for meals.
The title comes from this severance package that Candace is offered in exchange to stay, but it also speaks to the severance of humanity that comes when capitalism pushes us to exchange our time, bodies, and labour for money in order to live. Throughout the novel, Candace speaks to a sense of friction between her and her boyfriend, Jonathan, a freelance writer who hustles for work and scrounges dollar pizza slices just to have some leisure time. She questions what the trade-off would be for her to follow in the same path of a less secure mode of work, a decision that is undoubtedly more difficult for her as a woman and Chinese immigrant, than for Jonathan, a white man born in the US.
This tension reaches its apex in the final third of the book when the plot becomes even more complicated by an incoming category 3 hurricane named Mathilde that is expected to flood Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. With the news of the storm approaching, many in the city turn to partying to cope, a mode that Jonathan says he doesn’t understand. Candace replies, “Well, they won’t have to work tomorrow.” Later, she thinks to herself, “I was like everyone else. We all hoped the storm would knock things over, fuck things up enough but not too much. We hoped the damage was bad enough to cancel work the next morning but not so bad that we couldn’t go to brunch instead.”
This scene reminded me a lot of the early days of COVID-19, back in March 2020, which now feels like it was decades ago. Back in the first lockdown when all non-essential businesses closed and work became remote (for a certain class of people), things felt like maybe they would last two weeks, or a month, maximum. I was laid off from my retail job, and suddenly found myself all of the free time I had once yearned for. In a similar way, pondering the confluence of Shen Fever and the upcoming storm, Candace thinks this will finally allow for some free time, stating:
“A day off meant we could do things we’d always meant to do. Like go to the Botanical Garden, the Frick Collection, or something. Read some fiction. Leisure, the problem with the modern condition was the dearth of leisure. And finally, it took a force of nature to interrupt our routines. We just wanted to hit the reset button. We just wanted to feel flush with time to do things of no quantifiable value, our hopeful side pursuits like writing or drawing or something, something other than what we did for money. Like learn to be a better photographer. And even if we didn’t get around to it on that day, our free day, maybe it was enough just to feel the possibility that we could if we wanted to, which is another way of saying that we wanted to feel young, though many of us were that if nothing else.”
Still, the free time that came from COVID-19 wasn’t of my, or anyone’s, own accord. Even in the first lockdown, I knew enough to know that a traumatic global pandemic wasn’t the same as a vacation. I didn’t force myself to write or to even be productive. I slept in. I read. I went for long, meandering walks. I cooked elaborate recipes. I watched a lot of TV. In spite of the free time, things did not feel relaxing, or peaceful, or rewarding, or free.
Now, over a year into the pandemic, what once kept us entertained and pacified now feels empty and tiring. And much like in Severance, all many people have to keep up the illusion of a routine in the face of a global pandemic is getting up and going to work in the morning. All we have to cope is distracting ourselves with work.
Severance is not only a commentary on capitalism but one on grief. After graduating from school and losing both her parents, Candace moves to New York City essentially just because it’s something to do. Living off her inheritance and without a job, Candace forces herself to go on daily 8-hour walks taking pictures around the city, uploading them at the end of the day to a blog called NY Ghost, distracting herself from the grief of her parents’ passing. Five years later, after she’s the last employee left at Spectra, she returns to this practice to keep herself occupied in the face of the enormous loss of life as she once knew it after Shen Fever ravaged the world.
The commentary on grief is the strongest emotional aspect of the novel for me, and one that made reading the book during a pandemic even more resonant. All throughout COVID, I’ve still been talking to my therapist, albeit over the phone rather than in person (I refuse to watch myself cry on Zoom). Almost every session, she reminds me that a lot of the frustration, anxiety, and fatigue that comes from living in a pandemic is due to the fact that we’ve lost so much and yet we still can’t grieve, since our collective losses are ongoing, and we have no idea what the future holds.
Because of this, scheduling my vaccine appointment a month ago felt like something that wasn’t actually real. Going to get my first vaccine dose two weeks ago, I felt a similar wave of complete disbelief. I pulled the 3 of Swords from my tarot deck the morning of my appointment, one of the ultimate cards of wounding, grief, and pain out of all 78 of them. After getting my shot, I wanted to cry. Here I was, finally getting this thing I’d waited so long for, a vaccine that would provide me with an amount of protection and safety I simply didn’t have for a year’s time. The first sign of some semblance of closure, the first moment where things finally felt a bit lighter. The paradox of a weight being lifted off your shoulders is that you often don’t realize just how much you’ve been carrying.
There’s a line in Severance that states, “Let us return, then, as we do in times of grief, for the sake of pleasure, but mostly for the need for relief, to art.” How bizarre it was to read this novel, and then for a lot of it to come true, and then to re-read it and decipher new meaning from it after the fact. But I’m grateful it exists, just as I’m grateful that so much of what has kept me entertained during the pandemic exists: the hours of conversations between Bobby and Lindsey on Who? Weekly, the Fast & Furious franchise, DJ Louie ranking musicians on Pop Pantheon, Euphoria, every book written by Ottessa Moshfegh. All of these got me through, and hopefully, one day much sooner than my brain thinks it will, out the other side.
What Else I’m Reading: I have a big pile of library holds in transit that I can’t wait to dive into, including The Sluts by Dennis Cooper, You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat, Pop Song by Larissa Pham, and Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford. I also got an ARC of the new short story collection by Casey Plett and it RIPS so far.
What I’m Watching: Crave is where it’s AT! I’m watching Hacks, Ziwe, and Mare of Easttown, and loving all of them despite how different they are from each other.
What I’m Listening To: I’ve pretty much just been listening to my summer disco electro-dance playlist and Olivia Rodriguez’s Sour on a constant loop.
What I’m Writing: Check out this review I did of Josie & The Pussycats for In The Mood Magazine! Click “Happy” and then “Silly” to get to my review.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this newsletter, please like, comment, share, and subscribe. The next newsletter will be out the week of June 23rd. You can find me in the meantime on Goodreads, Letterboxd, Twitter, and Instagram. Take care of yourself, and each other.