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‘Severance’ Is the Novel of Our Current Moment—but Not for the Reasons You Think

Ling Ma’s 2018 book about a fictional virus that spreads across the globe has stark parallels to the spread of the coronavirus, and could be instructive for what we ought to take away from living during a pandemic

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What is the difference between a real-life pandemic that originates in China and spreads globally and a fictional pandemic that originates in China and spreads globally? Ling Ma’s apocalyptic 2018 novel Severance—which might be accurately described in terms of the latter—has resurfaced due to its uncanny anticipation of our current global crisis. Similar to the coronavirus, the fictional virus in Ma’s novel is a flu-like virus that first appears in a major Chinese economic center (here, Shenzhen instead of Wuhan) and quickly moves outward, leaving no one unaffected. Unlike the coronavirus, however, the “Shen Fever” in Severance is uniquely fatal: Its victims become zombies of repetition—endlessly brushing their hair, applying and reapplying face lotion—until their bodies disintegrate.

The first online article that suggested the connection between Severance and the coronavirus seems to have appeared in late January, on India’s CNBC website. The piece itself is a fairly straightforward book review that never actually name-drops the coronavirus, which makes its accompanying tags all the more striking: “China health emergency,” “China virus,” “coronavirus,” and, amusingly, “unwind.” Since then, the connection has increased in volume and explicitness, especially in American media—spreading from references in think pieces to quarantine reading lists. The novel’s themes of contagion are, it seems, having a second-order life amid real-life virality.

The appeal of Severance lies in its literal resonance with our contemporary situation. Published in 2018 but set in 2011—Ma narrates apocalypse in the key of alternate history—reviews have been quick to note its eerie prescience. “It feels ominous that the situation with the novel coronavirus is even passingly similar,” admits Bijan Stephen in The Verge, “even though Ma’s book is set in an alternate past.” Yet the speed at which some readers have readily accepted the parallels may say more about them than the book itself. And while I do not begrudge anyone the catharsis of readerly projection—especially during these bizarre times—that doesn’t mean that “Severance: it’s just like us” hot takes are missing the point. For as the pandemic precipitates spikes in xenophobic sentiments, any overidentification with Ma’s novel based primarily on its ethnic coordinates (“Severance … tells the story of world-wide pandemic originating in China,” summarizes Lithub) should give us pause. That its author, a Chinese American immigrant, has refrained from all media requests is perhaps telling.

Severance is narrated through the intimate perspective of Candace Chen—a 20-something Chinese American immigrant who works at a Manhattan publishing house manufacturing Bibles. Between chapters that document Shen Fever’s transmission from China to the U.S., alternate chapters depict a reverse trajectory set in the past, when Candace used to take frequent work trips to Shenzhen. These latter chapters frame Candace’s relationship to Shenzhen—and by proxy, Shen Fever—not in terms of ethnicity, but in terms of work. If anything, Candace’s trips to Shenzhen downplay the virus’s origin. While residing at the Grand Shenzhen Moon Palace Hotel, with its “English-style rose garden,” Candace remarks how one “wouldn’t know from staying there that it is located anywhere remotely in Shenzhen, let alone in China.”

One of China’s major manufacturing hubs, Shenzhen mass produces American commodities such as Candace’s specialty bibles (the Gemstone Bible, for example, is marketed to preteen girls) at both higher efficiency and lower cost. It is also this dependency on Chinese technological advancements that directs the virus back to America. In Severance, the infectious fungal spores of Shen Fever get carried along shipping routes, transmitted through the circulation of commodities, whereas the coronavirus is suspected to have originated in Chinese animal markets (markets that are, for what it’s worth, an effect of a larger agro-industrial system), Shen Fever, we are told, “developed within factory conditions of manufacturing areas, the SEZs in China.” If there is any analogy between our current situation and Severance, then, it is this: The pandemic is not so much racially “essential” nor nationally “causal” as it is fundamentally about a global capitalist system that implicates us all.

When Trump calls coronavirus a “foreign” or “Chinese virus,” he is being xenophobic, sure. But he is also sidestepping a basic reality—America has always relied on such foreignness to function as a global empire. American imperialism was built on the backs of migrant bodies and their labor, even as the nation has continually refused to accept them as its own. That the American economy is now experiencing adverse consequences from this “foreign virus” is perhaps its most ironic echo of Severance. Trump’s negligence in addressing and aiding Americans during this health crisis is of course also an intentional act to keep the stock market curve from dipping even further. Yet, a dip is inevitable and even necessary if the country is to prioritize its people over its market.

The title of Ma’s novel refers primarily to the corporate layoffs that occur in the immediate wake of Shen Fever, as well as the longer aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis. (Ma started working on Severance in 2012 when her then-office job was downsizing; she subsequently went and got an MFA at Cornell to pursue her novel.) The title also refers, however, to Candace’s immigrant narrative of “severance” from her birth country—one that, at the novel’s end, sits at the top of the list of countries banned from entering Candace’s current country of residence. The novel’s allegorical thrust is ultimately less Chinese than Chinese American; or, if it is Chinese, it is a version of Chineseness that does not know itself outside of being American.

When Candace recalls childhood visits to her family back in Fuzhou—which she endearingly contextualizes in “Fujian province, a.k.a. the armpit of China, a.k.a. the Jersey of Asia”—her memories are filtered through American goods. “TV mixes with my dreams mixes with my memories,” she reflects. Candace remembers walking down the streets of Fuzhou, with “teenagers in fake American Eagle. Senior citizen ladies … 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.” To be “made in China,” Candace’s Asian American narrative suggests, is to know yourself through American products. Reminiscing on what she describes as “the feeling of being in Fuzhou at night,” Candace waxes lyrical: “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.”

Severance is full of lists like this, a series of series that make up the feeling of being a citizen of late capitalism.

Candace is unthinkable outside of her work. When her longtime boyfriend asks her to leave the grind of New York City with him, she refuses. When New York City starts falling under the grips of Shen Fever, Candace is the last remaining employee who still goes to the publishing office; she continues to go to work every day, eventually even moving herself into the office after the city’s transit infrastructure shuts down, until the very last day of her formal contract. Candace’s implausible dedication to her work—even after everyone else has abandoned New York, even after all the shops have closed down so as to render her paycheck valueless—is not a product of her innate belief in the work of producing Bibles, however, so much as her belief in the innate value of work. That investment in work is inherited from her late parents, whose “work ethic was like that of many other immigrants, eager to prove their usefulness to the country that had deigned to adopt them.”

Candace’s ongoing commitment to work, though, isn’t borne only out of an immigrant work ethnic; it is, as Severance shows us, a condition of very late capitalism. It is also—as the coronavirus has made very clear—not unique to Candace. The current pandemic links the world not only through a circulation of a shared virus, but in how it has brought out our overwhelming reliance on capitalist accumulation and its vicious supply chains. While rapidly changing conditions mandate “social distancing” that forces us to work where we also live and sleep, we are also potentially brought closer in our common struggle to distinguish work from leisure—a struggle that, for so many contingent workers, is already a generalized condition of life.

Even after the end of the world brings an end to waged labor, Candace’s own life does not exactly feel different from before. She steals an abandoned taxi (Manhattan is littered with them at this point) and starts driving, before eventually running into a small group of leftovers. Surrounded by the walking dead, these few remaining survivors steadily hoard food and resources—their days are marked by the repetitions of hunting, gathering, and sorting. Despite the novel’s apocalyptic premise, its organizing mood is not ultimately that of panic, but something closer to boredom. After the machine of capitalist industrialism halts to a stop, the few lingering survivors find solace in the surety of repetition.

As they travel across abandoned cities, the leftovers organize their scavenging—or what they call their “stalking”—of goods in terms of a highly systematized routine. Before entering each deserted building, the group joins hands and performs a chant that Candace describes as “part prayer and part affirmation.” Yoking prayer with repetitious labor, Severance becomes not only a critique, but also a meditation on work. And in being so, it also becomes a meditation on what it means to be alive right now. Severance teaches us not about the orientalization of disease, but the ritualization of routine. We might sense Ma’s linking of ritual and repetition, for instance, in the recent “Wash Your Lyrics” meme, which, at least visually, looks like a conflation of sign language and prayer. These everyday routines are also what now guide Americans forward, as they engage the process of careful social distancing.

As the global stock markets falter under the coronavirus’s effects, and, in particular, as the American Century seems to approach its decline, Ma’s novel is a bracing tonic. But it is not because it heralds the story of a Chinese virus. As the virus continues to spread—especially in Western nations—so too do xenophobic anxieties that can be traced back to 19th-century fears about the “Yellow Peril.” In contrast, Severance presents a different kind of dilemma: What if there was only one Chinese person left on earth? What kinds of labors, rituals, and prayers might she endure or elicit? Ma’s novel doesn’t end with an answer. As it makes clear on its very first page, disaster fiction often fails to predict the world: “We found one another after fleeing New York for safer pastures of the countryside. We’d seen it done in the movies, though no one could say which one exactly. A lot of things didn’t play out as they had been depicted onscreen.”

Jane Hu is a writer and Ph.D. candidate living in Oakland.