My review of Ling Ma’s Severance is intentionally short though it is one of my top picks for books read in 2018. Sometimes, I find that it is difficult to disentangle my thoughts from a text that I have been working with for a relatively long time. So, I am sticking to the basics in this post. One thing I would have to argue upfront in regards to Severance, however, is that I am in favor of approaching this novel as a multi-genre work that consists of a zombie narrative, an outbreak narrative, a ghost narrative, and an Asian American immigrant narrative. In reading Ma’s debut, it is certainly impossible to avoid using zombie fiction as a frame of reference for “the fevered.” However, I was drawn to Severance precisely because of how “the fevered” does not fit easily into either the Haitian or the popularized version of the zombies.
The novel opens with an unidentified narrator, who is later revealed to be the protagonist Candace Chen, who is a 1.5 generation Chinese American woman working as an overseas bible production manager for a New York publishing company. It is also interesting how Ma points out the irony of the Bible being produced in the manufacturing plants in Shenzen, China of all places. Certainly, Candace is not a character that you would immediately fall in love with. At first, she reminded me a lot of Suzy Park from Suki Kim’s The Interpreter, whom Juliana Chang describes as “actively demolish[ing] domestic feelings and connection” in her work Inhuman Citizenship. However, Candace proves to be an intriguing first person narrator as her perspectives on the outbreak of Shen Fever and the fevered (those who are infected with Shen Fever) are different from those around her.
According to government organizations, Shen Fever is a fungal infection transmitted by breathing in airborne fungal spores. This description is strikingly similar to that of the mutated version of the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a type of insect-pathogenizing fungus that turns ants into zombies, which provides the premise for Mike Carey’s novel, The Girl with All the Gifts (2014). Yet, unlike Carey’s novel that revolves around two characters – a military scientist and a second-generation zombie who further spreads the spores – Ma’s novel does not feature surviving characters who can verify Shen Fever’s origin and modes of transmission. Instead, as noted in the prologue, the group of survivors only consist of “brand strategists and property lawyers and human resources specialists and personal finance consultants,” whose white-collar jobs are rendered useless in the post-pandemic world.
* spoiler alert*
Moreover, it seems that those who become fevered start showing the symptoms of Shen Fever when they return to a place filled with personal memories and nostalgia. In that regard, the disease can be classified as having a supernatural origin, rendering entities such as CDC useless. If the social orders such as neoliberalism and global capitalism have both collapsed beyond repair after the Shen Fever pandemic, then why does the narrator-protagonist of Severance (Candace) insist on remembering her racialized and gendered past? Especially when the pandemic is a disease intimately associated with nostalgia? And ultimately, what does it mean for an Asian American immigrant narrative to be embedded in speculative fiction (and other narratives modes) in this way?
One of the most frustrating but interesting and well developed dynamics in the novel is that between Candace and Bob who is the self-appointed leader of a small group survivors. Once Candace leaves Manhattan and finds herself rescued by the group, she immediately distrusts Bob and hides the fact that she is several months along in her pregnancy. To keep that secret hidden a little longer, she continues to tell Bob bits and pieces of her past like Scheherazade from Arabian Nights. This is a detail that I almost missed in my first reading. However, this adds texture to the narrative and makes the readers wonder where various boundaries lie (between truth / lie, the fevered / non-fevered etc.).
In particular, I found Bob and Candaces’s argument about zombies fascinating. When Bob tells the group that the fevered are indeed zombies and therefore must be terminated, Candace intervenes: “What are you saying? Because number one, the fevered aren’t zombies. They don’t attack us or try to eat us. They don’t do anything to us. If anything, we do more harm to them.” While I will not spoil the plot further, this is a moment worth revisiting after finishing the novel.
On a personal level, I found myself wanting to know more about the fate of the characters and the world after the ending. Yet, I absolutely loved how Ma blurs the border between a before and an after, whether it be about the immigration to the United States or an apocalypse induced by an outbreak of Shen Fever. Moreover, Severance yet again confirmed that I am drawn to slippery texts that deal with memory, temporality, and multilateral movements.