Ling Ma skewers the blind consumerism of modern society in her new novelby Catherine Woulfe
A pandemic that kills its victims with dull routine makes for brilliant satire in Ling Ma's Severance.
A fever percolates in the factories of China. It’s a fungal spore, and it spreads by sticking to stuff – hair clips, iPhones, coffee cups, McDonald’s toys – all the junk we ship in to pad our cluttered nests.
The spore goes to work in the brain. Over a course of weeks, it destroys everything but the bits to do with nostalgia and routine. The “fevered” lapse into familiar, final rituals: a young woman tries on dress after dress, posing in front of the mirror, ad infinitum. A mother sets the family table, clears it, repeats. A little girl chews her hair as she reads, strand by strand, until the carpet around her is covered in a halo of hair. Everything else drops away – the fevered forget to eat or drink. Death comes slowly.
America is hit hardest and New York, the melting pot, most of all.
Ma puts us right in the thick of it as things fall apart, with millennial Candace Chen as our guide.
“What is the difference between the fevered and us?” Candace wonders at one point. You’ll already have been asking yourself this for some time. Candace is not one of those protagonists who tows a reader through the book; rather, she sort of stumbles along in its wake. The reader feels one step ahead, but never so far as to get “well, duh” about it.
Nor is this a story about resourcefulness in the face of adversity. Candace is a lemming, wedded to routine. For her, fever has nothing to do with it. New York succumbs and office blocks clear out but she stays on, unable to see past the workaday grind. In one excruciating scene she gets stuck in a lift in the desolate city. There is no one to help her. A few days later, she tries to get back in the same lift. I wanted to punch her.
Where does “funny” come into it? Ma has a lot of fun with poor old Candace. “The rents had decreased so significantly I could definitely afford something in Manhattan,” she thinks, ludicrously, as she commutes past block after block of empty apartments. Such deadpan satire threads through the book, leavening a reading experience that is grim and genuinely unsettling.
I haven’t done enough raving. Severance is an extraordinary book. I’ve not read anything like it. I raced through it, fascinated, and it left me in awe of Ma and thoroughly sickened by the rest of us – well, our gobbling, blind consumerism, anyway.
SEVERANCE, by Ling Ma (Text Publishing, $37)
This article was first published in the October 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
Wool is natural, renewable and biodegradable so it should be a great time for the New Zealand economy. Why, then, are farmers, designers and ...Read more
Most of us would probably not say, “I’d rather go naked than wear wool”, but that was exactly the message that 18 months ago appeared on US billboardsRead more
Conspiracy belief is more common among people who are less trusting and experience more anomie – they worry that the world is losing it and...Read more
Jared Diamond’s new book about empowering national identity to respond to crises is bound to tip off yet another controversy, but...Read more
Today, Finland is one of the world’s richest countries, but it’s had to fight for it, as this edited extract from historian Jared Diamond’s new...Read more
Trinity Roots frontman Warren Maxwell is laying down history, recording 25 waiata composed and sung by Wairarapa Māori.Read more
World War II-era Catch-22 swings from drama to comedy as John Yossarian slowly loses his mind.Read more