I’ve read a post-apocalyptic novel or two in my day, and a common thread that runs through them is that when the bomb drops or the plague hits or whatever apocalyptic thing it is that happens happens, people stop going to work. The apocalypse, it seems, is an unimpeachable reason to play hooky.
Not so in Ling Ma’s entertaining, thought-provoking debut novel, Severance. In Severance, when the apocalyptic thing happens — in this case it’s a disease called Shen Fever — the unaffected minority keep going to work. For some, it’s a coping mechanism. For others, it’s the promise of a hefty bonus, or the idea that their loyalty to the company will get them ahead when this all blows over.
For Candace Chen, it’s a case of not knowing what else to do.
Candace lives alone in New York City. She’s been floundering for some time, looking for meaning, looking for something to anchor her life to. At this point in time, her job overseeing the production of Bibles is the most solid, dependable thing she’s got, and she clings to it — even though she kind of hates it.
This — not the end of the world, and not the zombie-like victims of Shen Fever — is the horror Ma is writing about; that society as a whole places so much meaning on truly meaningless things. Even before the apocalypse, the world Ma writes about is filled with people behaving like zombies. They go through their day, mindlessly executing routines like shopping and watching sitcoms and shopping and checking their number of Instagram followers and shopping and….sound familiar? Life post-Shen Fever is really not that much different than pre-Shen Fever, except there are fewer people around. Even those stricken with the Fever go on about their routines as best they can while their bodies break down; they show up at work and they set the table at home or they sit on their couch in front of the television. It’s not the first time somebody illuminated the similarities between out consumer-driven society and zombie-like behavior (hi Mr. Romero!), but it’s a powerfully-delivered metaphor all the same.
Severance bounces back-and-forth between its pre- and post-Fever timelines, juxtaposing the world’s slow-motion collapse with Candace’s efforts to fit in with the band of survivors she joins once staying in New York is no longer an option. They are making a classic post-apocalyptic road trip to a supposed safe haven called The Facility, a place co-owned by the group’s defacto leader, Bob. It’s a mellower version of such road trips; the Fever zombies are not aggressive, and whatever survivors are out there have yet to descend into the warring, cannibalistic tribes one expects to encounter during post-apocalyptic cross-country treks. But that’s in keeping with the tone of Ma’s novel, which leans heavily toward the satire side of horror/satire.
Which brings me to my final point: I do consider this a horror novel, but don’t come to it expecting gore or suspense or nightmare imagery or jump scares. Instead, expect a sharply-written wake-up call that will likely be enjoyed by many who will miss the larger point: put down the phone, put away the credit cards, and try to make connections with people instead of brands and objects. Otherwise, when the Fever strikes or the asteroid hits or whatever apocalyptic thing happens happens, nobody will be able to tell the difference between the zombies and you.