‘Thoughts on Severance’ by Laura Curry

I found the novel Severance to be a profoundly thought-provoking novel. I believe it metaphorically holds a mirror up for the reader to reconsider their own lives and possibly their own mundane routines. I regard this post-apocalyptic novel compelling and stimulating. The structure of the novel adds to the novels intrigue. The flipping back and forth of the chronological timeline makes you want to keep reading. The narrative connects satisfactorily like a literary jigsaw puzzle. The more I read through each upcoming chapter the more the elements of the story came together.

I believe Severance by Ling Ma is aptly named as it is a novel about the tearing apart of society. The Shen Fever pandemic rips apart everyday life as people become ‘fevered’ or are forced to flee main cities. I see Severance as painting a picture of what an apocalyptic future might hold. The victims of the fever in Ma’s novel are doomed to repeat their last actions indefinitely. Trapped in an endless cycle of repetition. This could be a critic by the author of modern life and how mundane and dull it can be. We are almost fevered by the routine of daily life.

“Shen fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories. But what’s the difference between the fevered and us? … And our days, like theirs, continue in an infinite loop.”

The novel exposes the problems in modern society and predicts we will be the cause of our own destruction. The fevered people are trapped in a continuous loop and this is not unlike how people hold onto routines in modern society.

The fact that the main character, Candace, is assigned to work in the manufacturing and distribution of bibles – I believe this directly relates to the apocalyptic theme of the novel. Global capitalism is deeply criticised with this novel. The idea that people were working in terrible conditions trying to produce these ‘gemstone’ bibles is ironic. Surely the Christian thing would be to not have these people in such terrible working conditions.  I think the bible verse that Candance picks randomly from the bible is relevant and foreshadows what the rest of the book holds

“And David said unto God, I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the Lord: for his mercies are great: and let me not fall unto the hand of man.”

It is an apt verse to fall across as it describes mankind’s desperation in terrible situations.

Candace is so trapped in routine of contemporary life she refuses to leave New York when her boyfriend Jonathan asks her to. More intensely however, she declines to leave the city after it becomes a ghost town when Shen Fever has wiped out most of the population and any survivors have fled.

The fact that the main character Candace is pregnant brings an element of hope to the backdrop of the apocalyptic theme. She is imprisoned by her fellow survivors for what they believe is for her safely I found infuriating. The idea that the leader of the group is playing God is somehow of great annoyance to me and I am clinging onto any hope that Candace might escape.

The element of Shen Fever in this novel made me explicitly contemplate our own situation. We are living through a pandemic which is not unlike the one explored in this novel. Although apocalyptic literature is not a new genre, it is an interesting coincidence that this novel was written and published so close to a real global pandemic.  

The gradual rolling in of the Shen Fever until it began to disrupt everyday life and silently became a global contagion eerily reflects corona virus in todays society. Our very real pandemic creeped into our lives gradually until it became the very focus on all our minds. I found it unnerving the sheer similarities between this post-apocalyptic book and todays pandemic. There is an interesting coincidence incredibly visible in the novel.  The Shen Fever described in the novel has effectively foreshadowed our own Corona virus global pandemic.

Candace’s NY Ghost blog is relevant in such as that is what New York itself has become.

I think it is a clever allegory depicting the way we live our modern lives.

Severance has opened my eyes to what humans are capable of doing during desperate times. “It’s the humane thing to do, Genevieve replied. Rather than have them cycle through the same routines, during which they degenerate, we put them out of their misery right away.”

They murder their fellow humans who have been ‘fevered’ and I’m not sure how I feel about this morally.

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This novel was a very enjoyable read. It was also unnerving as it is an apocalyptic fiction.

The ending of this novel made left me wanting more. The final line, “I get out and start walking” – makes me think of endless possible outcomes to Candance’s story. I am left wondering about her unborn child Luna and how they both could possible survive a post-apocalyptic world.

“A second chance doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. In many ways, it is the more difficult thing. Because a second chance means that you have to try harder.”

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Primary Text

Ma, L. (2018) Severance. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Secondary Texts

Kelly, H. (2020) ‘Severance​ Predicted the Slow-Burn Performance of Our Pandemic’, [Online] Available at: https://www.vulture.com/2020/03/severance-ling-ma-coronavirus-pandemic.html  (Assessed: 15th November 2020).

Hu, J. (2020) ‘‘Severance’ Is the Novel of Our Current Moment—but Not for the Reasons You Think’, [Online] Available at: https://www.theringer.com/2020/3/18/21184516/severance-coronavirus-book-ling-ma (Assessed: 15th November 2020).

Fan, J. (2018) ‘Ling Ma’s “Severance” Captures the Bleak, Fatalistic Mood of 2018’, [Online] Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/ling-ma-severance-captures-the-bleak-fatalistic-mood-of-2018 (Assessed: 15th November 2020)

4 thoughts on “‘Thoughts on Severance’ by Laura Curry

  1. I thought this was a very interesting blog post, Laura!

    The novel really does highlight and critique many flaws of capitalism. I think that Shen Fever traps the people within their roles within the neoliberal state, destined to live out their lives within their own pursuit of a capitalist ‘American dream’. What I mean by roles, people are trapped within their jobs when fevered, such as the taxi man or the woman Candace photographs for her blog in the store. Obviously, because of the ‘winner/loser’ culture of capitalism (talked about extensively in Rose’s blog post on OUT), these people are destined within their entrapment.

    I thought your observation of the irony that Candace is manufacturing Bibles was astute. Perhaps this could signify how capitalism has come between the human race and the hope of a saviour – or that the evils of capitalism are masked even within a religion. Anyway, I think Ma is a bit of cynic by choosing Bibles has the sole source of Candace’s labour. Capitalism has a firm grip on how we consume morals.

    Nevertheless, Severence was a difficult read considering our circumstances, especially because I feel like every day is repeating and we’re on a constant loop!

    Thanks for the interesting read!

    1. I heartily agree that this novel is a critique of capitalism. People are often trapped within monotonous routines in modern life, and I believe ‘Severance’ highlights this.

      The biblical element in this novel underlines the irony of selling bibles in an apocalyptic world.

      I understand that this novel reflects todays society as we are in a sort of ‘Groundhog Day’ with every new day being a lockdown day.
      Thank you so much for replying to my blog, its much appreciated!

  2. Laura, your blog post has been a pleasant read which also makes me think about the entrapment into this American Dream, mentioned already by Danielle. I think that the entrapment within the job begins even before the outbreak of the Shen fever. That might be caused by the capitalist corruption of the American Dream which is no longer what it used to be. Candace’s parents were able to escape their home country and a regime they disagreed with and pursue a better life in America, their experience marking a great contrast with that of Candace’s. If the old American Dream was achieved by hard work, the new one is nothing but hard work. This corruption of an old ideal might not make people happier, no matter how well trained they are to appreciate the image of a busy New Yorker who does not even have time to stop for coffee, but it might make them into hard workers.

    Do you think that the current circumstances which correspond well to those in the book might help us rebel against this newfound belief that your life has to be defined by your job, or are our lives too entangled with this idea that it is impossible for us to sever all ties with it?

    Thank you for your answer!

  3. I really enjoyed reading your post Laura! And I particularly liked your point of Severance as a novel which”…metaphorically holds a mirror up for the reader to reconsider their own lives and possibly their own mundane routines.” I’m just wondering if you could further expand upon this and say perhaps what it is exactly you think that Ma wants us to change?
    I think that the fact Candace works in Bible productions is quite funny in a strange way, and I found the idea of the Gemstone Bibles almost as darkly ironic and laughable as the Hipster Baby that features in the book. I think Ma uses such examples to highlight the indignity and irony that is symptomatic of late-stage capitalism, I’m just wondering if you would agree with that? Or if you think she’s trying to make another point?

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