Maybe it’s the end of the world, but not for Candace Chen, a millennial, first-generation American and office drone meandering her way into adulthood in Ling Ma’s offbeat, wryly funny, apocalyptic satire, Severance.
"A stunning, audacious book with a fresh take on both office politics and what the apocalypse might bring." —Michael Schaub, NPR.org
“A satirical spin on the end times-- kind of like The Office meets The Leftovers.” --Estelle Tang, Elle
NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY: NPR * The New Yorker ("Books We Loved") * Elle * Marie Claire * Amazon Editors * The Paris Review (Staff Favorites) * Refinery29 * Bustle * Buzzfeed * BookPage * Bookish * Mental Floss * Chicago Review of Books * HuffPost * Electric Literature * A.V. Club * Jezebel * Vulture * Literary Hub * Flavorwire
Winner of the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award * Winner of the Kirkus Prize for Fiction * Winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award * Finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel * A New York Times Notable Book of 2018 * An Indie Next Selection
Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. With the recent passing of her Chinese immigrant parents, she’s had her fill of uncertainty. She’s content just to carry on: She goes to work, troubleshoots the teen-targeted Gemstone Bible, watches movies in a Greenpoint basement with her boyfriend.
So Candace barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies cease operations. The subways screech to a halt. Her bosses enlist her as part of a dwindling skeleton crew with a big end-date payoff. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.
Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?
A send-up and takedown of the rituals, routines, and missed opportunities of contemporary life, Ling Ma’s Severance is a moving family story, a quirky coming-of-adulthood tale, and a hilarious, deadpan satire. Most important, it’s a heartfelt tribute to the connections that drive us to do more than survive.
In this shrewd postapocalyptic 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, a "disease of remembering" that renders its victims zombie-like, doomed to " old routines and gestures they must have inhabited for years." The affected aren't dangerous, just disturbingly similar to the living in their slavish devotion to habit. The narrator, Candace Chen, works at a specialty Manhattan book publisher, overseeing the printing of specialty Bibles, "the purest form of product packaging, the same content repackaged a million times over." Most of the production takes place in China, the source of the fever and Candace's birthplace. She narrates the swift spread of the fungal infection, which begins to ravage the city as she struggles, like many young New Yorkers, with whether she should pursue her artistic passion (photography) or commit to her corporate job. 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 and dextrous debut.