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.