In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard not to read Severance as a prophetic novel that predicted just how a pandemic of apocalyptic proportion would affect us in the 21st century. The pandemic-inspired fashion shows, designer face masks and the dangers of misinformation caused by Shen Fever, all reflect the strangest ways Covid-19 has changed the contemporary zeitgeist. However, I believe that one must read Severance as Ling Ma’s commentary on the millennial experience of late-stage capitalism and consumerism. Severance blends together touching and intimate accounts of Chinese-American immigration, satirical metaphors and horror to create a “… millennial bildungsroman—with a dash of zombie apocalypse.” (Day)
Those infected with Shen Fever, the fevered, disintegrate into zombie-like creatures who are doomed to repeat menial routines in a state of semi-consciousness as their bodies disintegrate and decompose. There is no cure. So, Ma’s apocalypse sees the world’s population die as they set out dinnerware, try on outdated garments and drive taxicabs with no passengers and no destination. Ma’s zombies are created by transmitting fungal spores, but their demise is triggered by nostalgia.
“Memories beget memories. Shen Fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories.”(Ma 160)
There are fevered who remain trapped within rituals of recreation and daily routine, such as the Gower family whom the survivors kill during a “live stalk” (Ma 79). Furthermore, some individuals remain trapped in routines of employment. Candace, like the fevered, is most strikingly forced to continue her job in a monotonous and solitary routine upon agreeing to work Spectra’s New York to save money for her baby. Candace is trapped contractually and emotionally in “…the uneventful, repetitive, pedantic and generic… details of modern work,” and not by Shen Fever (Martin 164). In Theodore Martin’s Contemporary Drift, the link between post-apocalyptic fiction and labour is identified as the “occupational aesthetic,” wherein “after the end of the world, it no longer matters what you do… it matters only that you find something to do over and over to survive.” (164)
“The crop of recent novels that have been termed “millennial” depict a rootless, anxious life: a rat race whose illusory prize for sacrificing your soul is a bare minimum of social acceptance and financial security.”(Sudjic)
Unlike other post-apocalyptic narratives exploring labour such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Robert Harris’ The Second Sleep, Candace works through the apocalypse in a job that is not directly tied to physical labour or self-sustaining activities. She seeks meaning and comfort in her job, and it’s routine; her work ethic and contractual obligations allow her to seek stability after a breakup, and throughout her pregnancy and the pandemic. In my opinion, it is the combination of economic exploitation and self-imposed work-ethic against a backdrop of disaster that best characterises Candace as symbolic of the millennial employee. Moreover, the book’s periodisation in which Candace comes of age sets Severance’s protagonist firmly as a millennial. As Candace and her peers entered the job market a few years after the 2008 economic crash, grew up with the emergence of social media and witnessed movements such as 2013’s Occupy Wall Street Movement – all of which feature in the novel. I believe Ma employs the millennial experience to explore the exploitative effects of capitalism and consumerism; thus highlighting the unsustainability and hypocrisy that millennials inevitably cooperate in and contribute to. Even Candace, who at the request of Spectra, places an order for the production of Gemstone Bibles in a Chinese factory, knowing that the production of which will cause factory workers to contract pneumoconiosis. Candace denies responsibility; “I was just doing my job.” (Ma 151) Like the fevered, Candace is absolved of any responsibility or agency as Candace, and the fevered continues to fulfil social and occupational roles mindlessly throughout the apocalypse.
The link between Zombies and critiques of capitalism and consumerism are well-researched and long-established. With the zombies acting as “vehicles for the expression of the every-accelerating viral nature of capitalism,” the spread of infection which is facilitated “in an increasingly integrated world… which in turn brings about a crisis in capitalism.” (Boluk & Lenz 127)
Ling Ma recognises zombies as a convention of post-apocalyptic writing and even cites the 1978 film, Dawn of the Dead, as influential to Severance in an interview with Madeline Day. One can easily draw parallels between the two. Wherein, a group of survivors, take shelter in a mall and fight off a hoard of zombies, similar to how Severance’s band of survivors move into the repurposed mall, ‘The Facility’. Like the Dawn of the Dead’s zombie’s, the group’s self-appointed leader Bob roams around the rows of familiar shops aimlessly and mindlessly, as he eventually becomes fevered. Both the ‘others’ and the fevered are meant to comment on mindless consumerism in America. However, Romero’s traditional zombies are literal monsters of destructive consuming power. Their ferocity and appetite diagnose and satirise the consumerism associated with the 1970s. Whereas Ma’s fevered do not actively consume, rather they waste away, passively trapped in routines of production, productiveness, or like Bob – who will continue to engage mindlessly in the ambience of consumerism until he passes away and disintegrates.
“Life under advanced capitalism appears as an endless waste of time (watching television, waiting for the Mail). In response to the depredations of modernity, the apocalypse offers two solutions in one. First, having eradicated all the things we used to do with our time, it shows us how much time we’ve been wasting; and, second, having exposed us to the hard truth of ‘how many hours are in a day,’ it gives us something better to do to fill all those hours – the real work of survival.”(Martin 167)
The “advanced capitalism” or rather late-stage capitalism of the 2010s, leaves the fevered trapped in the acts of “meaningless activities” as outlined by Martin (167). The only way to break the chain of capitalism in Severance, as in other post-apocalyptic works, is to eradicate the means of our current production and consumption that are symptomatic of consumerism. Therefore, Candace abandons her attempts to placate through her job and is forced to flee New York, then the Facility in the pursuit of surviving and starting over through the birth of her daughter, Luna. Candace must now complete “the real work of survival,” outside of capitalism and alone (Martin 167). Whereas the fevered remain trapped in the memories of the occupations and vocations of advanced capitalism. In a way, fulfilling Ruifang’s (Candace’s mother) dreams of escaping to Chicago and starting afresh with Candace alone, matured but world-weary. Thus, completing the narrative arch that is also typical of a bildungsroman.
Ma, Ling. Severance. Text Publishing Melbourne Australia, 2018.
Boluk, Stephanie, and Wylie Lenz. “Infection, Media, And Capitalism: From Early Modern Plagues To Postmodern Zombies”. Journal For Early Modern Cultural Studies, vol 10, no. 2, 2010, pp. 126-147. Project Muse, doi:10.1353/jem.2011.0001.
Day, Madeline. “Apocalyptic Office Novel: An Interview With Ling Ma”. The Paris Review, 2018, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/08/22/apocalyptic-office-novel-an-interview-with-ling-ma/.
Martin, Theodore Jacob. Contemporary Drift. Columbia University Press, 2011, pp. 161-168.
FSG Work in Progress. Severance: Times Square Face Mask. 2018, https://fsgworkinprogress.com/2018/08/24/severance-2/. Accessed 17 Nov 2020.
McKhann, Emma. Severance Cover. 2018, https://aux.avclub.com/in-the-zombie-apocalypse-of-ling-ma-s-severance-the-re-1828173796. Accessed 17 Nov 2020.
Romero, George A. Dawn Of The Dead. United Film Distribution Company, 1978.