Severance: a Millennial Apocalypse.

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)

Ling Ma’s apocalyptic, debut novel bound in Millennial Pink.
Source: (McKhann)

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 So, Ma’s apocalypse sees the world’s population die as they set out dinnerware, try on outdated garments and drive taxicabs with no passengers and no destination.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.

Source: FSG

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.

Skip to 0:26 – 0:57 for the most relevant snippet to draw comparisons to the fevered in Severance.
Source: (Romero)

“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.

Sources Used

Primary Texts

Ma, Ling. Severance. Text Publishing Melbourne Australia, 2018.

Secondary Texts

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.

Images

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.

Films

Romero, George A. Dawn Of The Dead. United Film Distribution Company, 1978.

9 thoughts on “Severance: a Millennial Apocalypse.

  1. Abi, I found your piece very interesting and thought provoking! Towards the end you suggest that that Severance may be read as a bildungsroman, as Candace has to ‘grow up’ and learn to fend for herself without the placating effects of her job or the facility, that placating effect coming from the consumerist, capitalist nature of these locations. Would you then say that she is disillusioned from the myth of ‘the good life’ as figured in Berlant’s Cruel Optimism? That the consumerist impulse is formed under capitalism as a way to construct identity and that it is stripped away when society collapses and the modes of capitalism become defunct?
    Also, if we are to read Severance as a bildungsroman, then I think it would definitely be considered a subverted bildungsroman as a major element of the genre is not there. In a classical bildungsroman (think Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce) there is a rebellion, or resistance to the cultural norms of the novel, and then a return to conforming to the norm as the character reaches maturity. They are often about reestablishing or entrenching dominant cultural values. I don’t see Severance using this structure, (although feel free to contradict me), so in light of this is Severance a critique of the dominant cultural norms of American Capitalism? In what ways do the characters of the novel rebel against these norms, and what alternatives, if any, does Ma leave us with at the end of the novel?

    Well done on the post!

    1. Thank you for reading!
      I think the link between Severance and Berlant’s ideas of ‘the good life’ from Cruel Optimism is a fascinating point that hadn’t crossed my mind in all honesty! If reading Severance in light of Berlant’s ‘good life’, I think it would be fairer to argue that Candace longs for a ‘good life’ on her terms that’s characterised by independence and self-fulfilment away from the nightmares of late-stage capitalism. She undeniably rejects the traditional model of ‘the good life.’ I believe she does this because ‘the good life’ has always been unattainable due to the economic and psychological struggles she (and her parents) have experienced. I would even like to put forward that to some extent, upon the birth of Luna, hopefully, she will achieve a version of the good life as she will finally have a family unit through mother-daughter, independence due to her no longer working within Spectra or being trapped by the other apocalyptic survivors. This independence but emotional fulfilment through her new maternal role is a version of the good life for the contemporary novel. However, I am very aware that this is probably just some wishful thinking.
      Also, I think your characterisation of Severance as a ‘subverted bildungsroman’ is instrumental when thinking about the novel. I want to elaborate further and say the Severance is a particularly ‘Millenial’ subversion of the bildungsroman when one compares it to classic examples of bildungsromans such as David Copperfield. Candace completely escapes the “rootless, anxious life: a rat race whose illusory prize for sacrificing your soul is a bare minimum of social acceptance and financial security.” Nevertheless, she only manages to do so through a pandemic of apocalyptic proportions which liberates her from social and professional obligations, thus forcing her to become completely independent by the end of the book. I think that perhaps Ma uses an apocalypse to demonstrate that the indignities and comical tragedy of late-stage capitalism as so insidious that Millenials such as Candace can only be free via a global event of apocalyptic proportion which would completely dismantle the current economic system. I characterise this as ‘millennial’ because the book’s absurdity, isolation and comedy all read, to me at least, as particularly Millennial which of course bleed through to the narrative structure of the bildungsroman. Severance offers a strange form of rebellion, in rejecting to operate within the current economic and social systems which deprive Candace and her peers, ‘the good life.’

  2. Well put Abi!
    There seems to me to be an overarching link between Ling Ma’s Severance and Natsuo Kirino’s Out, in that they both explore moral detachment at the hands of capitalistic work. As you said, Candance’s line, “I was just doing my job,” distances her morally from the work she’s doing, regardless of the fact that she knows this work is harming people. To me, this is similar in Out to how, upon the murder of Yayoi’s husband Kenji, they cut up and dispose of the body in the same, detached, emotionless way that they pack food at their work. The industrial capitalistic sphere has turned them into morally absent machines. While far more dramatic in Out, the implication remains the same, that perhaps the domestic and work sphere of modern capitalism, which in both novels is depicted as deadening and monotonous, spawn’s moral detachment in people, from the world and their impact in it. Like the Shen Fever which seems to reduce people to mere detached work machines, the capitalistic system is affecting us morally and is dampening our humanity. Is this a link that you can see in both books, or am I over-reaching?

    1. Ryan, I don’t think you’re overreaching at all – in fact, I’m rather terrified of your ability to guess at what I had been thinking about for a long time. Upon reading Candace’s remark “I was just doing my job,” I instantly like Out and Severance. As you rightfully highlight, the actions fo the women in Out are undoubtedly creepier and morally reprehensible. However, I think Candace’s emotional and moral detachment from her decision to continue to force factory-workers to work in dangerous conditions despite knowing that they will most likely get sick and die is a different brand of chilling. I think Ma uses her distance to comment on the way those under Western capitalism willingly interact and contribute to the exploitation and harm of other humans through consumerism. Our privilege is the distance and ignorance we can claim in statements such as Candace’s. Late-stage capitalism inevitably “dampens our humanity” (to lend your phrase) because we indeed grow detached and apathetic to how consumerism ravages those who are forced to satiate our rampant consumerism.

  3. I wonder if this novel is a foreshadowing of our current pandemic. I don’t believe there is any way Ma could have knowingly predicted this pandemic two years in advance. Apoloctypictic literature is not a new genre. I think it is an interesting coincidence that Ling Ma has written a novel that echoes our current situation so vividly.

    The title ‘Severance’ is very relevant as it is about the tearing apart and ripping to threads of our modern day society. This is an anti-establishment novel as well as a piece of apocalyptic fiction. I thoroughly enjoying reading this novel and indeed this blog. Your blog is very much a thought-provoking and well written piece of writing. Well done, Abigail!

    1. As I said in my blog, it is eery and chilling when we read Severance amid the Coronavirus pandemic- at times it reads as chillingly prophetic. But I think this is because Ma manages to capture to the contemporary mood of the late 2010s to the extent that she highlights and accidentally predicts things that would always have happened if a pandemic had hit an era of this current characteristic. By which I mean, that in the late 2010s, there would’ve always been designer face-masks due to our relationship between consumerism and fashion, and because of the dry sense of irony that seems to characterise our era as defined by fake news and disingenuous virtue-signalling. We often look to dystopian fiction and claim that it predicts the future, but that is only because the author of the work in question has thoroughly diagnosed and characterised their contemporary social and political landscape in which a tragedy will map onto and be shaped by.
      I remember reading an interview with Ma, in which she said that she had initially titled the novel ‘Chinese Bibles,’ which though I find to be a pleasantly ironic and catchy title. Nevertheless, I too agree that the title ‘Severance’ is especially pertinent to Ma’s novel.
      Thank you so much for the kind words and for commenting!

  4. Great blog post Abi!

    Although it could currently be read and understood by many other generations who participated and helped create this endless loop of consumerism, I like it how you decided to emphasise just how telling it is of the millennial experience. As Ryan has observed, it does point to the moral detachment caused by the capitalist work ethic, but I think Severance goes further than that. In a way, I think it does not allow people to blame their jobs anymore, to see the blame only in the system itself. The Shen fever spores have evolved precisely because of the bad factory conditions in the countries where the west outsources its workforce and materials for an almost symbolic price. Although the fever is fictional, the conditions are not. I think that, even in real life, the younger generation (millennials and after) understands it must make changes because the ways of life of their predecessors are not sustainable. We have been given proof time and again for that and denying responsibility still, by choosing to continue fulfilling these social and occupational roles, we are, one by one, contributing to a possible bleak future. Do you think Ma wanted to portray this individual through Candace so that we might recognise ourselves in her, or does it instead call for a societal change? And if the former is possible, do you think it is problematic because it blames the individual for something that should be changed somewhere higher up the decision ladder?

    Thank you for your answer and an excellent read!

    1. Neli this is such an excellent analysis, and it completely blows any points that I had made out of the water! I have to agree with entirely your point of Ma, not allowing us to blame our job. I do think the novel confronts us and says that we should and can no longer feign innocence or ignorance when we’re actively contributing to and being exploited by the consumerism endemic of late-stage capitalism. I think that one has to be mindful when we claim that a book can speak for a generation. Nevertheless, I do indeed wholeheartedly place Severence as a piece of millennial fiction, and Candace as an uber-millennial created by Ma to explore that generations social and economic struggles in the current capitalist climate. However, I don’t think she represents all millennials, rather her isolation, cynicism, need for independence and fulfilment and ultimately her humour are all of a particular Millennial flavour in which all millennials can relate to in some way. Though I am a part of Gen Z, I grew up looking up to Millennials as the generation slightly ahead of us as they created Hipster culture and created the neo-grunge aesthetics and overpriced industrial-styled coffee shops yet. Moreover, as a Gen Zer looking to the millennial generation (who are only slightly older), I read Severance as a warning to my generation and future generations. Ma warns us of the ways which we could also fall into the immorality and dissatisfaction caused by late-stage capitalism, that Ma highlights as intrinsic to the millennial experience if we do not actively resist or engage in increasingly more mindful forms of consumerism and production.

  5. This is a really excellent post, Abi! I thought it was particularly interesting how you establish precedent for zombie apocalypse narratives forming critiques of capitalism. The interesting thing about the “Fevered” in Severance, however, is that they’re rather pathetic, posing no threat whatsoever, but simply trapped in their own repeating cycles, oblivious to the external world – this representing, as you say, a kind of ennui and voluntary tedium arising from late-capitalism. It’s interesting too how the band of survivors views the pandemic with recourse to zombie movie tropes and pulp apocalypse fiction – fiction is almost seen to supplant reality, since the absurdity of the situation is impossible to grasp in its own right. This perhaps explains Bob’s rather brutal system of giving the Fevered they encounter a summary shotgun execution – he is recreating the aesthetics of the horror films he’s familiar with. As a result, this grotesque violence takes on a somewhat banal character by its systematic nature – another example of the all-consuming cycles of labour under capitalism.

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