Book Review: Severance by Ling Ma - More2Read

Severance by Ling Ma

Maybe it’s the end of the world, but not for Candace Chen, a millennial, first-generation American and office drone meandering her way into adulthood in Ling Ma’s offbeat, wryly funny, apocalyptic satire, Severance.

Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. With the recent passing of her Chinese immigrant parents, she’s had her fill of uncertainty. She’s content just to carry on: She goes to work, troubleshoots the teen-targeted Gemstone Bible, watches movies in a Greenpoint basement with her boyfriend.

So Candace barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies cease operations. The subways screech to a halt. Her bosses enlist her as part of a dwindling skeleton crew with a big end-date payoff. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.

Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?

A send-up and takedown of the rituals, routines, and missed opportunities of contemporary life, Ling Ma’s Severance is a moving family story, a quirky coming-of-adulthood tale, and a hilarious, deadpan satire. Most important, it’s a heartfelt tribute to the connections that drive us to do more than survive.


An Elle Best Book to Read This Summer
A Southern Living Best New Book of Summer 2018
A Millions Most Anticipated Book of 2018
A Buzzfeed Summer Reading Pick
A Nylon Best Book of Summer 2018
A Vulture Best Book of the Summer
A Chicago Magazine Summer Reading Pick
A Library Journal Summer Fall Best Debut Novel
An April Magazine Most Anticipated Book of 2018
A BookBub Laugh-Out-Loud Book of 2018
A Library Journal Debut With Credentials
A Bookish Summer Must-Read Fiction

“A satirical spin on the end times—kind of like The Office meets The Leftovers.” – Estelle Tang, Elle

“A counter-history . . . Ma’s writing about the jargon of globalized capitalism has a mix of humor and pathos that reminded me a little of Infinite Jest and a little of George Saunders; it produced a sense of estrangement from my cosmetics, my clothes, and my iPhone.” — Emily Witt, The New Yorker

“Funny, frightening, and touching…. Ling Ma manages the impressive trick of delivering a bildungsroman, a survival tale, and satire of late capitalist millennial angst in one book, and Severance announces its author as a supremely talented writer to watch.” — The Millions

“If satirist Gary Shteyngart wrote his version of 2015 end-of-world breakout Station Eleven, it would be this compulsively readable book.” – Mind Body Green

“Astounding . . . Ma’s engrossing, masterfully written debut transforms the mundane into a landscape of tricky memory, where questions of late-stage capitalism, immigration, displacement and motherhood converge in such a sly build-up as to render the reader completely stunned. It’s just an office novel, after all, with some worker-bee politics and consideration of the commute, the lunch break, the after-work cocktails. But Severance demands to be wondered at, only to flip around the gaze and stare back at you.” – BookPage

“Ma’s writing is compelling and cogent, perfectly satirizing a world that often feels beyond parody.” — Nylon

“Ma’s language does so much in this book, and its precision, its purposeful specificity, implicates an entire generation. But what is most remarkable is the gentleness with which Ma describes those working within the capital-S System. What does it mean if a person finds true comfort working as a ‘cog’ in a system they disagree with? Is that comfort any less real?” — Buzzfeed

“Blends two distinct subgenres into a wholly original narrative.” – Vol. 1 Brooklyn

“A biting indictment of late-stage capitalism and a chilling vision of what comes after . . . [Ma] knows her craft, and it shows. [Her protagonist] is a wonderful mix of vulnerability, wry humor, and steely strength…. Ma also offers lovely meditations on memory and the immigrant experience. Smart, funny, humane, and superbly well-written.” — Kirkus

“Embracing the genre but somehow transcending it, Ma creates a truly engrossing and believable anti-utopian world. Ma’s extraordinary debut marks a notable creative jump by playing on the apocalyptic fears many people share today.” — Booklist

“This quirky satire of office culture… imagines what would happen to a Chinese American workaholic if Manhattan were hit by a sudden apocalypse.” — Chicago Magazine

“For readers who love their literary fiction with a dash of apocalypse, this one’s for you.” — Bookish

“In this shrewd postapocalpytic debut, Ma imagines the end times in the world of late capitalism, marked by comforting, debilitating effects of nostalgia on its characters . . . The novel’s strength lies in Ma’s accomplished handling of the walking dead conceit to reflect on what constitutes the good life. This is a clever and dextrous debut.” — Publishers Weekly

“A smart, searing exposé on the perils of consumerism, Google overload, and millennial malaise . . . an already established audience will be eager to discover this work.” — Library Journal

“In a breathtaking mash-up of now and just a hair beyond now, Ling Ma’s apocalypse glistens with terror, humor, anger, and humanity. I promise, you will not be able to stop reading this ingeniously constructed and electrifyingly harrowing book.”
Samantha Hunt, author of The Dark Dark

“As a look into where our overconsumption might lead us, Ling Ma’s Severance rings terrifyingly true. More than that, it’s a moving meditation on home, belonging, and life itself—all rendered in cool yet affecting prose that’s too good not to keep reading.”
Rachel Khong, author of Goodbye, Vitamin

“My autocorrect keeps putting ‘King’ Ma instead of Ling Ma, but maybe that’s on the mark: she totally rules. Severance is like nothing else around: a witty workplace novel and a terrifying plague yarn, an immigrant story and a sort of homecoming, full of Chinese whispers and New York ghosts.”
Ed Park, author of Personal Days

“Ling Ma has given us a terrifyingly plausible vision of our collective future, one in which our comforts have become pathology and our habits death—and, in her protagonist, a hero who doesn’t know if she should be seeking salvation or oblivion. And yet, somehow, Severance could easily be the funniest book of the year. It’s a brilliant, deadpan novel of survival, in this world and in the precarious world to come.”
J. Robert Lennon, author of Broken River


Infrastructure, electrical grid, internet, all gone, and she’s in a group on the road to The Facility.
Then there is the Shen Fever, with symptoms of memory lapse, headaches, disorientation, shortness of breath, fatigue, malnourishment, lapse of hygiene, bruising on the skin, impaired motor coordination and fatal loss of consciousness.
The Shen fever transported to the States from China, the main characters native home.
In this tale: “The first case of Shen Fever was reported in Shenzhen, China, in May 2011.”

The main protagonist works for a publisher that produce specialty book projects with an office for publishing in New York and printers in southeast Asia.
She emigrated with her parents to America from China aged six.
She takes you through reflections on the past and the present the life of hers, the immigrant tale and struggle all in first person narration, the whole collapse of things, the capitalism, the complexities of the world and its wonder and its fallings, unraveling one’s self from the whirlwind of the mind she was once, with a new birth in ways, a reinvention and appreciation.
Scenes evoked vividly before the reader, the whole whirlwind of her mind with world gone topsy turvy, mesmerising and hypnotic, meditative and poetically strung together words with lucidity and satire in the narrative.



“Looking at the office workers suspended high above us, I sensed for the first time my father’s desire to leave China and to live in a foreign country. It was the anonymity. He wanted to be unknown, unpossessed by others’ knowledge of him. That was freedom.”


“I had seen him talking to a bunch of people as they sat around on the floor. Later still, through a curtain of smoke, I saw him in my room, looking through my bookcase. Those books aren’t mine! I wanted to yell, even though that was not true. They were all mine. My Antonia. Windowlight. Namedropper. Crime and Punishment, the one thing I saved from freshman English. The Metamorphosis. The Sweet Valley High series, paperbacks of teen horror and sci-fi that I had pilfered from visits back home. Christopher Pike. R. L. Stine. I Capture the Castle. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. A collection of defunct magazines from the nineties, Index being my favorite. How long had he been in there?”


“We walk the streets of Fuzhou at night, in the one summer when I come back. Streetlights send our elongated shadows tumbling ahead of us, across the neon-tinged storefronts and buzzing lamps. Everyone comes out, the old men in wife-beaters and plastic sandals, the teenagers in fake American Eagle. Senior citizen ladies roll out before bedtime in pajama pants printed with SpongeBob or fake Chanel logos. There was a Mickey D’s and a KFC, street dumpling stands, bootleg shops, karaoke bars. Everything is open late, midnight or even later. There are places to get a full-body massage, an eight ball, a happy ending. If you stay on these streets long enough, it’s possible you could get everything you want, have ever wanted. Because I misremember everything, because I watch a lot of China travel shows when I am alone at night in New York, because TV mixes with my dreams mixes with my memories, we walk along the concourse that runs alongside the river even though there is no river, we turn down boulevards punctuated by palm-tree clusters even though those belong in Singapore, we smoke cigarettes openly even though it’s unseemly for women, especially in my family, to smoke in public. But the feeling, the feeling of being in Fuzhou at night, remains the same.
  When I was a kid, I named this feeling Fuzhou Nighttime Feeling. It is not a cohesive thing, this feeling, it reaches out and bludgeons everything. It is excitement tinged by despair. It is despair heightened by glee. It is partly sexual in nature, though it precedes sexual knowledge. If Fuzhou Nighttime Feeling were a sound, it would be early/mid-nineties R&B. If it were a flavor, it would be the ice-cold Pepsi we drink as we turn down tiny alleyways where little kids defecate wildly. It is the feeling of drowning in a big hot open gutter, of crawling inside an undressed, unstaunched wound that has never been cauterized.”


“His work ethic was like that of many other immigrants, eager to prove their usefulness to the country that had deigned to adopt them. He didn’t get to enjoy his life nearly enough. One exception that I remember: The afternoon my father and I passed our US citizenship test together, he took us to the KFC across the street and ordered a deluxe combo of fried chicken with all the sides. I wasn’t particularly hungry, but because he never treated himself, I ate a few pieces alongside him, feigning a festive, abundant appetite. We sat in a booth next to the window, and it was there, with the view of trucks ambling down the freeway, that he seemed to lose himself in memory. He told me that when he was a kid, growing up in the Fujianese countryside, meat and eggs were so scarce that they were only consumed during Chinese New Year. He grew up with his grandparents, tenant farmers. During the New Year festivities, his grandmother would prepare two eggs per person, fried on both sides with soy sauce on top, with crispy edges. That was his favorite dish when he was a kid. It was hard to conceive of anything better. But when we moved here to Salt Lake, he added, your mom and I went to that buffet restaurant, Chuck-A-Rama. I had never had fried chicken before. And I thought, this is better. Fried chicken is better.”


“I Googled Shen Fever.
The fungus Shenidioides had originated in Shenzhen, then spread to nearby regions of China. The reigning theory, first disseminated by a prominent doctor on the Huffington Post, was that the new strain of fungal spores had inadvertently developed within factory conditions of manufacturing areas, the SEZs in China, where spores fed off the highly specific mixture of chemicals.”


“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 stores. To pay its sales taxes. To give a dollar to its homeless.
   To live in a city is to take part in 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?”




Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 18 August 2018