‘Severance’ Is the Apocalyptic Millennial New York Immigrant Story You Didn’t Know You Needed
Ling Ma on writing her novel about the deadliness of the capitalistic system after being laid off from her office job
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Here’s how Severance, Ling Ma’s stunning debut novel, begins:
After the End came the Beginning. And in the Beginning, there were eight of us, then nine — that was me — a number that would only decrease. We found one another fleeing New York for the safer pastures of the countryside. We’d seen it done in the movies, though no one could say which one exactly. A lot of things didn’t play out as they had been depicted on-screen.
We’re with Candace Chen, the novel’s narrator, in the aftermath of the outbreak of a deadly viral fever that has killed almost everyone in the US. Although this opening passage may seem to launch a survivor story — one that’s looking to subvert the conventions of the genre — the jacket text describes the novel as “a moving family story, a quirky coming-of-adulthood tale, and a hilarious, deadpan satire in which the end of the world gets put in its rightful place.”
Is it possible for a novel to be all of these things? In Ma’s hands, the answer is an ambitious, elegant, and playful “Yes!” — Severance meets and exceeds the promise of this exciting description.
In many ways, Severance is a novel of ideas — it artfully blends/bends genre, it boldly indicts global capitalism, consumerism, and materialism — but every one of its intellectual aims is deeply grounded in the richly felt experiences of the narrator. As a reader, this novel made me dizzy with fear for our world, today, and at the same time, it made me worry about the well-being of the compelling Candace Chen and her companions. And it made me laugh. It made me laugh a whole lot.
Ling Ma and I corresponded over email and discussed the deadliness of global capitalism, surviving a life of nine-to-five office jobs, and weaving together an apocalyptic millennial coming-of-age in New York immigrant story.
JS: One of the many things that I admire about this book is the elegant way in which it tracks several narrative lines, each in its own mode — the novel is simultaneously an apocalypse survivor story, a millennial New York coming-of-age story, and an immigration story. How did you weave together these three seemingly disparate narrative lines together?
LM: One thread led to another. Severance first began as an apocalyptic short story. Initially, the impetus for writing anything apocalyptic (it was already cliché, even by that point) was just about enacting this dumb, destructive glee. As I kept writing, I realized that this glee stemmed from a certain anger, in this case associated with work. The narrator, Candace Chen, works as a production coordinator of Bible manufacture. She lives in New York, but takes business trips to China, where Bibles are being printed and put together. She doesn’t believe in her job but at the same time, doesn’t have a clear sense of what she wants to do. This is a feeling that I think all of my friends felt after college, that sense of disaffection, of resignation almost, when you’re partaking and contributing to capitalist systems that you can’t really change. So this story had to incorporate an office storyline as well. It had to speak to that specific sense of powerlessness.
And, as I inhabited Candace’s perspective, I struggled to figure out why she kept working a job she disliked, or at least didn’t believe in. It’s not like she has any dependents or is paying down a mortgage. So what keeps her there? The answer came slowly. There is a very specific pressure amongst the children of Asian immigrants to succeed, to keep running on this imagined achievement track. It’s a deeply ingrained thing. So I knew that the story would be incomplete without incorporating that aspect of her immigrant background.
In the sequence of my process, the apocalyptic thread led to the office storyline, which led to the immigrant narrative.
JS: Where/how did this novel begin for you?
LM: I started writing this at the office, ha. I was working at a company whose Chicago office was being consolidated with their LA office, and as a result, there was a huge wave of layoffs. Employees who had worked there for three decades were being let go, sometimes unceremoniously. There was this collective sense of anger and frustration among the workforce. Lots of people left because they could see the layoffs coming. Actually, everyone saw the layoffs coming, but not everyone was lucky enough to successfully transition to another job. Especially the senior employees who’d been there for decades. It was very eye-opening to see the way upper management treated loyal employees.
On the day that layoffs at my office were announced, I remember reading about Maurizio Cattelan’s retrospective at the Guggenheim, titled All, how the artist took his entire oeuvre of artworks and strung them up from the ceiling like a public hanging. It should seem mournful, but the show felt incredibly exuberant and liberating. This coincided with his (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) announcement that he was quitting art. Around that time, I had started writing Severance. For me, the Cattelan show was about this outsized gesture that you can walk away from everything you once cared about.
I started writing Severance at my desk in the last month or so of my job. I remember taking these long walks during lunch, just thinking up new ideas for this story (it was still a story then, not a novel). It was a very intense, heady time, and the idea that I would not have a job soon was weirdly liberating. My ideas of what “success” looked like were upended. I purposely did not look for a new job. I got on unemployment and called it my arts fellowship. Then I ended up applying to MFAs, got accepted to Cornell University, and completed this novel there.
JS: In most zombie pop culture, the zombies are plagued by a flesh eating disease that renders them into monstrous cannibals. But the Shen Fever is a “disease of remembering” that renders its victims zombie-like, doomed to “[mimic] old routines and gestures they must have inhabited for years” until their bodies decay. Can you talk more about why you choose to frame the disease this way?
LM: I was inspired by working at nine-to-five jobs. I felt like I would keep repeating the same routines — taking the same public transit routes, ordering the same coffees, making the same water cooler small talk — until I expired. If not this job, then another job. A lot of people feel this way, that they’re looping into routines around meaningless jobs. Shen Fever simply expedits this process.
Some readers mentioned that they wondered whether Candace Chen was fevered herself. I like that interpretation. The line between who was fevered and who wasn’t was meant to seem blurred.
I don’t mean to say that routines are bad in and of themselves. On certain days, I really enjoyed my work routine; it gave my life structure and anchored me when I felt otherwise aimless. Complacency feels easy and kind of good. On other days, I felt scared by the end game, or the lack of. And, in order to last at a job long-term, you have to mentally distance yourself from it a bit. You have to numb yourself just a bit to get through it. Perhaps Shen Fever also encapsulates that self-numbing effect.
JS: How did setting the novel in a post-apocalyptic frame shape the way you were thinking about the experience of being a young woman surviving in a city? Why does this feel important to you?
LM: I’m a sucker for that coming-of-age-in-New-York genre, which like any genre has its particular tropes — including the self-absorption of its characters. In a sense, Candace Chen is also pretty self absorbed. She has a certain willful blindness as the city breaks down and she continues to stay there, trying to keep a status quo that is no longer. And one could argue that in order to work the job she works at, which contributes to an unsustainable global economy, she also has to maintain a certain willful blindness. The conflict for Candace: She is very perceptive, and some of her perceptions are actually at odds with how she lives her life.
JS: Severance offers a sharp critique of globalism/world capitalism — from one character’s lack of empathy toward factory conditions to the role of fashion in Candace’s life to the survivors’ enduring consumerism — and does so in a beautifully organic and character-rooted way, with every indictment coming from the ground up, not the top down.
Candace works at a publishing company in Manhattan that outsources the manufacturing of novelty Bibles to China; we find out that factory workers in China are dying of lung disease to mine the cheap semiprecious stones used to embellish the books, but for the publishing house, this is an inconvenience. This isn’t fiction, of course: a lot of poor factory workers in the developing world making slave wages have died because of dangerous working conditions, all so the developed world can wear a $20 H&M shirt. Were you hoping that readers would reflect on the way that their shopping habits (or their workplaces) contribute to this toxic culture? Was the real apocalypse capitalism all along?
LM: I’m not an economist or a political theorist, but I wanted to capture what global capitalism feels like on the individual scale, down on the ground floor. I wanted to show the ambivalence of an employee working at a job that contributes to an unsustainable system, and yet feels tethered to and even takes pleasure in her work routine. She works out of New York, while the manufacture takes place in China. It’s out of her line of sight, mostly. Even when Candace calls the publisher about the gemstone polishing effects on dying laborers, it is still an abstract concept to her, something she has to Google beforehand.
As virtually every space in our world is commodified, including online spaces, most readers are already well-informed consumers. Cheap foreign labor is something we all know about. But like Candace, we tend to understand it as a concept, something abstract. To live in this era of globalism, in which causal links between production and consumption are not immediately clear, everyone lives with a certain willful blindness. I wanted to accurately reflect how we move in the world as it is now.
I also wanted to explore Candace’s conflicted feelings as a Chinese American immigrant in light of her job, going back to those factories in Shenzhen on business trips, and her personal memories about China.
JS: What do you see as the relationship between fiction and politics?
LM: I don’t think fiction or any art form can be used as a force to enact sociopolitical change. It can, however, make readers see from a different or expanded perspective, and that’s valuable. If you were to try to harness that in a directive way, however, it would just be propaganda. In my role as a writer, I have to be faithful to Candace and the other characters first. She is able to see and perceive very accurately, such as how her job fits into the global economy, but she doesn’t do much to change it. She is unremarkable in that way, and like anyone else I know.
JS: Candace, the main character, is our first person narrator throughout. It’s such a pleasure to feel her voice evolve, subtly, from section to section — for instance, there’s a moment late in the book when she’s talking about her family, and it’s almost as if she vanishes as a character; when she returns, the effect is powerful. What did you find particularly challenging and/or rewarding about writing this novel in first person?
LM: Instinctively, there was no question that I would write this in the first-person singular. Although I didn’t articulate it to myself so clearly at the time, the intention was to show what globalism feels like on the ground floor, from the close perspective of an individual character. And despite the novel’s implicit criticisms, I wanted the act of working a job, with its office routines and business travel, to feel sensuous. I wanted the memories to feel sensuous. The first-person voice felt right for that.
More generally, as a writer, I have always been fascinated with the first-person voice. While it can be induced to tell you the truth, I think it resists that.
JS: I’d love to hear more about the nature of the first-person voice’s resistance to the truth (and your truth-induction methods!), especially in the case of Candace.
LM: When I worked as a journalist, whenever interview subjects would easily lay out their stories in front of me, I knew that was not the real story. It might be factually correct, and they themselves may believe in it, but it’s not the real story. I don’t think the real story can surface without a bit of blood and struggle.
Candace has the ultimate sob story — an orphan of deceased immigrants, cut off from her original language and culture — but she would be the last person to elicit sympathy from others. Because she is so alone in so many ways, she needs to believe she is very capable. I knew she would eventually address her background, but we had to talk around it for a bit. We had to circle the drain a bunch of times, getting a bit closer every time. And I suppose that’s how I saw the process of getting Candace to address her story, by circling the drain.
JS: Once you established this novel’s three main threads, did an exciting discovery made in one ever wildly alter the weave of another?
LM: Chapter 16, which delineates the immigration of Candace and her parents to the US, deepened how I saw Candace, and in turn, it affected how I approached later revisions and edits. I knew the novel needed to delve into her background, but as mentioned above, Candace herself is not the most forthcoming character. What do you do when your narrator doesn’t want to talk about something that you know the story needs to address? Maybe it’s not that she doesn’t want to talk about it, but she doesn’t know how. She’s not used to it.
In my case, I began the chapter by removing Candace entirely. I began with the immigration of Candace’s parents to Utah, which occurs in the 1980s, when cultural and economic pathways between the US and China begin to open up. Candace’s father is a scholar who travels to Salt Lake City on a scholarship. And Utah is a strange place of entry to America. It has always struck me as a spiritual place, with its dizzyingly majestic landscapes and history, its Mormon legacy. The chapter also addresses the role of religion in Candace’s parents lives, the role of Christianity in immigrant communities. Of course, Candace later surfaces again in the chapter and takes it over. I tried to make the story carry itself for awhile, before handing it back to the narrator.
JS: What was your MFA experience like? And how did (or didn’t?) it help you develop this novel?
LM: I once attended a Michael Chabon reading where an audience member asked him for advice about applying to MFAs. His response was that whatever the program, it should fund you to write without the distractions of a demanding course load or teaching load. The funding should also free you from having to take on extra jobs waiting tables or bartending, etc. That sounded supremely reasonable: An MFA program is valuable insofar as it gives you time to write. So at Cornell, I just wrote a lot. On a personal level, I was pretty miserable, though that’s another story. I made some close friends there, including my future husband. The fiction faculty was, overall, very supportive. The program invited a parade of fantastic writers, who came to read and lecture. Plus the embarrassingly generous appetizer spreads at their post-reading receptions.
Ultimately, though, writing is a solitary act. I still feel that you learn more by doing than anything else. The summers, when we had no teaching obligations, were really the best times to write. Certain nights, I felt that sleeping was just a distraction from writing, which sounds crazy now. But having worked a string of office jobs after college, I wanted to make the most of my time, when I was getting paid without having to hold down a “real” job. I just didn’t see myself having that opportunity again.
JS: What writers and works have influenced you — and Severance — in a big way?
LM: When writing Severance, I often thought back to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day as the ultimate office novel. As you know, it’s about a butler who’s spent his entire life working at an English manor, as it’s changed owners. You can tell by the way he discusses his job that it’s provided structure to his existence; its routines and habits have carried him. There’s a part of him that really believes in the profession, and he wants to represent its pinnacle, even as it’s a declining profession. But at the edges of his narration is the question of whether he’s wasted his life. That really gets to me. That’s the question we all ask of ourselves.
Kafka’s writings have always been a touchstone. His work gives on many levels. His perceptions about power, how it moves and functions, are just so clear and unflinching, everything from his journals to his letters to his fiction. I can’t overstate how much his work has meant to me, how much it has comforted me.
Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You, particularly the second section when the narrator discusses his relationship with his father, helped me wrestle with a specific chapter when I really needed it. And Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle really helped me feel less self-conscious about writing. This is not an insult, but its sloppiness, its seemingly dashed-off quality, its straightforwardness, is its best asset — something rare in contemporary fiction. It’s like spending time with someone with the armor of self-consciousness removed. There’s a craft to it that doesn’t feel like craft. Same with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Willa Cather’s My Antonia.