Joining a pack of survivors led by a charismatic IT guy named Bob—'He was Goth when he felt like it,' Ma writes, with the kind of sharp, offhand characterization that makes Severance a pleasure to read—Candace realizes that her survival may be more difficult with others than apart from them ... movement between past and present...makes the novel work: As Candace’s future becomes increasingly uncertain, and her path more dangerous, we come to realize what she’s already lost—long before the pandemic hit. This feat of pacing and plot is also what makes Severance stand out among recent works of millennial fiction: The whole novel is, in a way, about how we are but an accretion of everything that’s ever happened to us ... Tense and elegant, Ma’s writing...masterfully treads the line between genre fiction and literature. Part bildungsroman, part horror flick, Severance thrillingly morphs into a novel about self-worth, about the kinds of value we place on our own lives.
Ling Ma's shocking and ferocious novel, Severance, is a play on the 'Why I left New York' theme, but it's one you'll actually want to read ... a fierce debut from a writer with seemingly boundless imagination ... Severance goes back and forth in time, contrasting Candace's tedious office job with her travels across post-apocalyptic America. It's a technique Ma uses to great effect — it's jarring in a great way, making the horror of her new circumstances all the more intense ... while Severance works beautifully as a horror novel, there's much more to it than that. It's a wicked satire of consumerism and work culture ... Severance is the kind of satire that induces winces rather than laughs, but that doesn't make it any less entertaining ... [a] a stunning, audacious book with a fresh take.
Kmart realism has here taken on a fanatical glare, as if all the flickering bulbs in the supermarket aisle have been upgraded with halogen lighting ... Ma is satiric about the workplace, in a way that’s less snobbish than Nell Zink but just as funny and imaginative ... All the best metaphors in the book are cleverly crafted harbingers ... Her dexterity in joking about capitalism rivals the skill of the great Richard Powers, who once imagined a company selling a product to cure a disease it created ... There’s something so unimaginative and depressing and right about this book ending in a mall.
Severance offers blatant commentary on 'dizzying abundance' and unrelenting consumption, evolving into a semi-surreal sendup of a workplace and its utopia of rules, not unlike Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End. Ma revivifies this model ... In its most lucid moments, Severance evokes traces of, if not Meghan Daum in her 'misspent youth,' then the essay 'Goodbye to All That,' when a young and equally bemused Joan Didion looks at gleaming kitchens through brownstone windows, considering New York not as a place of residence but as a romantic notion...
Ma’s prose is, for the most part, understated and restrained, somewhat in the manner of Kazuo Ishiguro, and particularly his classic The Remains of the Day, from 1989, which Ma has cited as an influence ... Ma is at her most deft when depicting this kind of severance: the amputation of the immigrant’s past, preserved like a phantom limb whose pain is haunted with absence ... Severance does not suggest a way out of this [post-apocolyptic] fate; for Ling Ma, the zombie narrative is not the scaffolding for allegory, about the hive mind or anything else, but the means for setting a pervasive mood—anxious and bleak.
It’s a novel that sneaks up on you from all sides: it’s an affecting portrayal of loss, a precise fictional evocation of group dynamics, and a sharp character study of its protagonist, Candace Chen. It also features one of the most hauntingly plausible end-of-the-world scenarios I’ve encountered in recent fiction, one which folds in enough hints of the real to be particularly unsettling ... much of Severance’s power arrives through this: the sense that something terrible and seismic might happen, and no one would even notice ... While Shen Fever seems as plausible as any devastating epidemic in fiction, it also hits with a greater metaphorical resonance ... Severance allows for some slightly altered versions of recent events to take place ... on a larger level, these evocations of the recent past serve another narrative function: they make the reader complicit in the very act that this novel warns against. In cursing memory, it inevitably conjures memory. In both the level of detail and its thematic weight, this is a monumentally unnerving novel, one that leaves no easy answers or comfortable nooks in which to take refuge. But then again, the end of everything rarely plays nice.
Rather than take the end of days as a chance for the usual pontifications on societal collapse—most seemingly ignorant that we built society from nothing the first time, and we would certainly do it again—Ma uses the disaster trope for interrogation on a scale small enough to lacerate ... Candace intersperses the usual intimacies of a wordier lit with the trappings of the genre piece her life has become. It’s the tensions between the two that prove Ma’s skill and provide a compelling reason for reading. By focusing on such small-scale issues in the wake of a catastrophe, Ma illuminates a person in the dystopia. Candace’s world is slowly dismantled, her mind buried in work, her eyes in a camera’s viewfinder, until it has dissolved away. There is little to fear or to forget. Where so many other works falter is in their failure to do the same.
Ling Ma's Severance, however, is an unusual apocalyptic novel. Satiric and playful — as well as scary — it lends readers the assurance that humor will linger even as the world winds down to an end ... Ling Ma is an assured and inventive storyteller ... Like the best speculative fiction, Severance also aims for more than chills and thrills: without being preachy, Ling Ma's story reflects on the nature of human identity and how much the repetitive tasks we perform come to define who we are ...
Ma's vivid apocalyptic novel is something of a sardonic wake-up call.
Is it possible to imagine a future that isn’t at least somewhat tinged by the feverish traces of our collective past? It certainly becomes difficult to do so while reading Ma’s novel, in which all of life—whether before or after the apocalypse, in America or in China—is rendered through the same devastatingly lyrical prose ... Severance is the most gorgeously written novel I’ve read all year; when I finished it, I immediately picked it up and read it all over again.
Ma’s vivid prose does a fine job of evoking Candace’s remote point-of-view, whether before or after cataclysm ... its critique of capitalism, done slyly yet tellingly, is a central ingredient in her fusion of narrative themes ... All of it adds up to a remarkable package, thought-provoking and compelling, as it ricochets between the familiar and the unexpected. Most memorable, though, are the scenes of New York, emptying invisibly as its population migrates or fades away.
The fevered victims of Ling Ma’s astounding debut novel aren’t exactly zombies. As their bodies fall apart, they’re not bumbling about the ruined world or trying to kill you. Instead, they enact and re-enact the rituals of their former day-to-day lives. Retail workers fold shirts in empty stores. Old women laugh at the television and change the channel. Families mime the act of sitting down for dinner, chatting about their days; they clear the plates and do it again. In the world of Severance, the drone of normal life becomes a buzz too loud to ignore ... The novel follows the story of Candace Chen, the 20-something daughter of Chinese immigrant parents whose mother has recently died of Alzheimer’s. Candace splits her narrative into two timelines: before Shen Fever decimates the global population and after ... Ma’s...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.
...Shen Fever spreads through fungal spores, causing its victims to lethargically repeat menial tasks, ignoring all external stimuli, including the need for sustenance. Prognosis is terminal. Candace Chen, a rare survivor of the outbreak, blogs anonymously as NY Ghost on a slowly disintegrating internet, capturing the horror of what has happened in her photographs of an empty New York City, where she lived when the fevered started dying. The narrative flashes back to Candace’s life before the end, working for a book-manufacturing company in the Bibles department; spending free time watching movies with her on-and-off boyfriend, Jonathan; and longing for the seemingly fulfilled lives of other millennials her age ... Ma’s debut marks a notable creative jump by playing on the apocalyptic fears many people share today, as we live in these very interesting times.
The book is set in the near-present post-apocalypse and, through flashbacks, the near-past. The main character is Candace Chen, a millennial Chinese immigrant. Before the apocalypse, Chen was a worker bee at a New York City book production company manufacturing Bibles. Post-apocalypse, she’s pulled into a cult made up of survivors heading to the Chicago suburbs ... Underneath this suspenseful zombie story is a deeper one about the immigrant experience and growing up.
The book’s critique of late capitalism is scathing if not especially subtle. Candace is both a nuanced individual and a stand-in for an entire generation ... Severance regularly mixes the mundane or silly with the grotesque ... While technically post-apocalyptic fiction, Severance shares as much with Then We Came To The End, Joshua Ferris’ meditation on the failure of an advertising agency, as it does with The Walking Dead; Ma plays with voice, alternating between the first-person singular and plural to show how easily an individual comes to identify as part of a collective and how hard it is to have that group fall apart.
Ling Ma’s hand as a writer is light and masterful, characterized by a solemnity touched with humor. Candace’s memories and descriptions are vivid and touching and have a specificity that grounds the reader in Candace’s emotional experience as they read about an apocalyptic version of their world ... Prompting consideration of religion, family, life, death, and memory, Severance is rich and thoughtful, limited only by its ending, which may leave some readers unsatisfied.
...a fascinating coming-of-age novel, one full of millennial culture, post-apocalyptic adventures, and, perhaps most exciting of all, a zombie-like populace ... Severance wonderfully demonstrates how the lifestyles we lead now can have a great impact on our future ... Ma also takes a unique and sometimes comedic look at the commonly superficial relationships we have with our acquaintances ... its all done with a pleasingly light touch, despite the story being heavy with death and addressing the pressing issues of our times.
Ling Ma’s debut is a radically understated post-apocalyptic novel about boredom ... Ma’s critique of capitalism is not particularly subtle or particularly original, but it is searingly underplayed ... Ma’s critique is also intersectional. She is thoughtful about how the capitalism of the West oppresses the factory workers of the East ... Throughout, Severance operates with severe restraint.
In this shrewd post-apocalyptic debut, Ma imagines the end times in the world of late capitalism, marked by comforting, debilitating effects of nostalgia on its characters. The world has succumbed to Shen Fever...the affected aren’t dangerous, just disturbingly similar to the living in their slavish devotion to habit. ... The novel alternates between Candace’s vivid descriptions of increasingly plague-ridden, deserted New York and her eventual pilgrimage to an Illinois shopping mall with a band of survivors, whose leader is a menacing former IT specialist. There are some suspense elements, but 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 debut.
...when Shen Fever strikes, victims don’t die immediately. Instead, they slide into a mechanical existence in which they repeat the same mundane actions over and over. These zombies aren’t out hunting humans; instead, they perform a single habit from life until their bodies fall apart. A handful of people seem to be immune, though, and Candace joins a group of survivors. The connection between existence before the End and during the time that comes after is not hard to see ... This a biting indictment of late-stage capitalism and a chilling vision of what comes after, but that doesn’t mean it’s a Marxist screed or a dry Hobbesian thought experiment ... mix of vulnerability, wry humor, and steely strength.