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.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|File size:||6 MB|
About the Author
Ling Ma received her MFA from Cornell University. Prior to graduate school she worked as a journalist and editor. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Vice, Playboy, Chicago Reader, Ninth Letter and elsewhere. A chapter of Severance received the 2015 Graywolf SLS Prize. She lives in Chicago.
Read an Excerpt
The End begins before you are ever aware of it. It passes as ordinary. I had gone over to my boyfriend's place in Greenpoint directly after work. I liked to stay over on hot summer nights because the basement was cool and damp at night. We made dinner, veggie stir-fry with rice. We had showered and watched a movie projected on his wall.
The screening was Manhattan, which I'd never seen before, and even though I found the May–December romance between Mariel Hemingway and Woody Allen kind of creepy, I loved all the opening shots of New York set to the Gershwin soundtrack, and I loved the scene in which Woody Allen and Diane Keaton get caught in the rain in Central Park, and they seek shelter in the Museum of Natural History, wet and cocooned in the cavern darkness of the planetary display. Just looking at New York on the screen, the city was made new for me again, and I saw it as I once did in high school: romantic, shabby, not totally gentrified, full of promise. It made me wistful for the illusion of New York more than for its actuality, after having lived there for five years. And as the movie ended and we turned off the lights and lay down side by side on his mattress, I was thinking about how New York is possibly the only place in which most people have already lived, in some sense, in the public imagination, before they ever arrive.
I was saying some of this to him, the shapeless mass lying next to me in the dark, when he interrupted and said, Listen to me. Look at me. I have something to tell you.
His name was Jonathan and he liked to party. Not really. His name was Jonathan and he was high-rolling. He owned a laptop, a coffee maker, a movie projector; everything else went to rent. He ate air and dust. We had been together for almost five years, about as long as I'd been at my job. Jonathan didn't work in the nine-to-five sense. He did odd freelance gigs here and there so that he could spend most of his time writing. Divested of most obligations, he lived cheaply, held jobs when he could find them. Once, for a secret Wall Street club, he was hired to slap middle-aged businessmen for a living. I used to clasp his face between my palms, his expression wrought with worry, with unassuaged anxiety.
Okay, I said. What is it?
He took out his retainer, didn't place it in the mug on the floor but held it there in his hand. It was going to be a short conversation. He said, I'm leaving New York.
What, you didn't like the movie?
No, I'm serious. Be serious for once.
I'm always serious, I deadpanned. So, when are you leaving?
He paused. In another month. Thom is sailing up to this —
I sat up, tried to look at him, but my eyes hadn't adjusted. Wait, what are you saying?
I'm saying I'm leaving New York.
No, what you're saying is, you're breaking up with me.
That's not — He looked at me. Okay. I'm breaking up with you.
Lead with that.
It's not you.
No, it's not you, he said, grabbing my hand. It's this place, this city and what it turns a person into. We talked about this.
In the past year, Jonathan had become increasingly disillusioned with living in New York. Something along the lines of: the city, New York fucking City, tedious and boring, its charms as illusory as its facade of authenticity. Its lines were too long. Everything was a status symbol and everything cost too much. There were so many on-trend consumers, standing in lines for blocks to experience a fad dessert, gimmicky art exhibits, a new retail concept store. We were all making such uninspired lifestyle choices. We, including me.
Me, nothing really weighed on me, nothing unique. Me, I held down an office job and fiddled around with some photography when the moon hit the Gowanus right. Or something like that, the usual ways of justifying your life, of passing time. With the money I made, I bought Shiseido facial exfoliants, Blue Bottle coffee, Uniqlo cashmere.
What do you call a cross between a yuppie and a hipster? A yupster. Per Urban Dictionary.
Then he said, You should leave New York too.
Why would I do that?
Because you hate your job.
I don't hate it. It's okay.
Name one time, one time when you really like it.
Every Friday night.
I'm kidding. You don't even know what I do. I mean, not really.
You work at a production firm in publishing. You oversee the manufacture of books in third-world countries. Stop me if I'm wrong.
I had worked at Spectra for almost five years. We worked with publishers who paid us to coordinate book production that we outsourced to printers in Southeast Asia, mostly China. The name Spectra suggested the ostensibly impressive range of book products we were capable of producing: Cookbooks, Children's Books, Stationery, Art Books, Gift and Specialty. I worked in Bibles. The company had huge collective buying power, so we offered even cheaper manufacture rates than individual publishers could achieve on their own, driving foreign labor costs down even further. Obviously Jonathan kind of despised what I did. Maybe I did too.
I changed the subject. Where are you going? When?
Sometime next month. I'm going to help Thom sail on his yacht. The idea is to end up in Puget Sound.
I scoffed. Thom was Wall Street, a client from the club where Jonathan once worked. I said, Right. Like he doesn't crush on you and expect something in return.
You think like that because you live in a market economy.
And you don't?
He didn't say anything.
Sometimes, I said, I think you hold it against me for not being more like you.
Are you kidding? You're so much more like me than you think. In the dark, I could see him winking, bittersweetly. Want to do a sumo roll? he said.
The sumo roll was when he would roll across the bed, and when he reached me, he would compress his body into mine, belly to belly, until I was sunken into the mattress, obliterated, and then he would roll away. This repeated until I convulsed from laughing too hard.
No, I don't want to do a sumo roll, I said.
When he rolled on top of me, he weighed into me fiercely, indenting me into the bedding. He could be so heavy when he wanted. I squeezed my hands into fists. I squeezed my eyes together. I made my body stiff as a board, inhospitable. Slowly, I felt him lessening. I felt him stop. He could feel me shaking. He put his dry, hard palm on my forehead, as if he were taking a sick person's temperature.
Stop crying, he said. Don't cry. Please.
He offered me some water but I stood up and retrieved some Evian from my bag. I sat down on the edge of the mattress, taking small, worthless sips.
Lie down, please, he said. Will you lie next to me?
I lay down, next to him, both of us on our backs. We stared up at the ceiling.
Jonathan broke the silence. In a timorous voice, he said he could see clearly now, could see the future. The future is more exponentially exploding rents. The future is more condo buildings, more luxury housing bought by shell companies of the global wealthy elite. The future is more Whole Foods, aisles of refrigerated cut fruit packaged in plastic containers. The future is more Urban Outfitters, more Sephoras, more Chipotles. The future just wants more consumers. The future is more newly arrived college grads and tourists in some fruitless search for authenticity. The future is more overpriced Pabsts at dive-bar simulacrums. Something something Rousseau something. Manhattan is sinking.
What, literally? Because of global warming? I snarked.
Don't make fun of me. And yes, literally and figuratively.
The thing was, I didn't disagree with what he was saying. It is an impossible place to live. My salary was enough to keep my head above water month to month. Given my rent and lack of financial savvy, I had very little in savings, let alone retirement funds. There was very little keeping me here. I didn't own property. I didn't have family. I'd be priced out of every borough in another decade.
But having heard all this before, I began to tune out, thinking about what I would do next. When he nudged me, I realized he was asking me a question. He was saying, Would I consider leaving New York with him? We could do it together.
What would we do? I asked.
We would live together and take part-time jobs, he said. I would write and finish my book. You could work on your art too. I could make a darkroom for you to develop your photos.
Can you even have a darkroom on a boat?
Well, not during the trip. I was thinking that afterward, we could settle in Oregon. There are some cheaper areas out there in the rural Pacific Northwest.
I guess I'll be a nature photographer, I said drily.
Some R&B track with jumpy bass tremored the ceiling. It was that time of night again, when the neighbor upstairs brooded to sad songs with good beats. I didn't think much of my photographs. When I first moved to New York, I had created a photo blog called NY Ghost. It was mostly pictures of the city. The intent was to show new, undiscovered aspects of New York from an outsider's perspective, but in retrospect, the pictures just looked clichéd and trope-y: neon-tinged diners, gas-slicked streets, subway train cars packed with tired commuters, people sitting out on fire escapes during the summer — basically, variations of the same preexisting New York iconography that permeates calendars, rom-coms, souvenirs, stock art. They could have been hung in any business hotel room. Even the better, more artfully composed images were just Eggleston knockoffs, Stephen Shore derivatives. For these and other reasons, I hardly updated the blog anymore. I hardly took pictures anymore.
Would you at least consider it? Jonathan asked.
I'm not an artist.
Moving with me, I mean.
You've already decided to move away. You're only asking me as an afterthought, let's be honest.
I didn't think you would go if I asked, he said sadly.
The song ended, then began again. The neighbor had it on repeat. Jesus. It sounded familiar but I couldn't name it.
We spoke until our voices grew hoarse, deepening and breaking and fissuring. It lasted early into morning. Our bodies curled inward, away from each other, dry leaves at the end of summer.
In sleep it came to me. The name of the song, I mean: "Who Is It." Michael Jackson. My mother used to play it in the car when I was a kid. She loved to drive. She drove down long, unfurling Utah freeways on aimless, drifting afternoons, while my father was at work and I was still too young to be left alone. We would go to other towns to buy just one carton of eggs, one pint of half-and-half that she mistook for milk. I was six, and had only been in the U.S. for a few months, newly transplanted from Fuzhou. I was still dazed at the variety and surplus of the supermarkets, miles of boxes and bottles lit with fluorescent lighting. Supermarkets were my favorite American thing. Driving was my mother's favorite American thing, and she drove in a very American way: fast, down empty freeways before rush hour, skimming through cathedral canyons and red rock, her long black hair billowing everywhere, like in the movies. Why move to America if you can't drive? she'd say, never breaking her speed as we veered toward exit ramps, stop signs, traffic lights.
* * *
I woke up like I had a cold, my head heavy, my throat sore. Light peeked in through the blinds of the windows above us, and I heard footfalls on the sidewalk. Right away, I knew that I had overslept. The alarm hadn't gone off, and I was going to be late. In his tiny bathroom, rusty pipes cursed loudly for cold tap. I brushed my teeth, splashed cold water on my face. Put on yesterday's work outfit, a pencil skirt and a button-up shirt.
Jonathan was still asleep, swathed in gray threadbare sheets. I left him there.
Outside, the air was surprisingly cold for a July morning. I walked up the basement stoop and crossed the street to the Polish bakery for a coffee. The woman behind the counter was setting out a pan of something. Apple cider donuts. Steam rose off them and fogged up the windows. All the pedestrians in Greenpoint were bundled up in their cold-weather finery, red autumnal plaids and flourishes of thick, lustrous flannel, even though it was summer. For a moment I wondered if I hadn't just slept for months. Maybe I'd Rip-Van-Winkled my way out of a job. I would arrive to find someone else sitting in my office, my belongings in a box. I would return to my studio and find someone else living there. I would start over.
I walked to the J train, thinking up excuses for being late. I could say that I had overslept, though I'd used that one time too many. I could say there had been a family emergency, except my boss knew my parents were deceased and I had no other relatives living in the States. I could say that my apartment had been robbed, but that was too big a story. Plus, it had actually happened before. They'd taken everything; they'd stripped my bedsheets. Afterward, someone had said, You're officially a New Yorker now, as if this were a point of pride.
Looking out at the gray East River as the J crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, I decided that I'd just claim I was sick. I looked like I was sick, my eyes clustered with puffiness and dark bags. At work, they knew me to be capable but fragile. Quiet, clouded up with daydreams. Usually diligent, though sometimes inconsistent, moody. But also something else, something implacable: I was unsavvy in some fundamental, uncomfortable way. The sound of my loud, nervous laugh, like gargling gravel, was a social liability. I skipped too many office parties. They kept me on because my output was prolific and they could task me with more and more production assignments. When I focused, a trait I exhibited at the beginning of my time there, I could be detail-oriented to the point of obsession.
At Canal, I transferred to the N to ride all the way to Times Square. A light rain had begun to fall by the time I emerged aboveground. Spectra's glass office, housed on the thirty-first and thirty-second floors of a midcentury building, were located a few blocks away. The rain scattered the tourists as I ducked and weaved through their dense sidewalk congregations down Broadway, accidentally banging my knees into their Sephora and Disney Store bags. A street saxophonist played "New York, New York," his eyes closed in feeling. The cluster of tourists around him seemed moved, if not by the quality of his playing, which was drowned out by the trains roaring beneath our feet, then by his pained expression, a sorrow that seemed more authentic than performative. When the song ended and he emptied his Starbucks cup of dollars, he looked up, straight at me. I hurried away, embarrassed.
You're late, said Manny, the building doorman. He was sitting behind the reception desk, cleaning his glasses with the same Windex he used to wipe down the revolving glass doors every morning and evening.
I'm sick, I told him.
Here. For your health. From a drawer, he put out a pint of blueberries, and I grabbed a handful.
Thank you. Manny always brought amazing fruit to work. Mangoes, peeled lychee, diced pineapple with salt sprinkled all over it. Whenever I asked him where he bought his produce, he'd only say, Not Whole Foods.
You're not sick, he said, putting his glasses back on.
I'm ill, I maintained. Look at my eyes.
He smiled. You don't know how easy you've got it. He said it without malice, but it stung anyway. I stepped into the elevator, pretending his comment didn't cut me.
When I disembarked on the thirty-second floor and swiped my employee key card at the wide glass doors, the halls were empty. So were the cubicles. The big, sweeping SVP offices that I passed every morning, made of glass as if to suggest corporate transparency, also sat empty. Had I forgotten about some meeting? My heels sank into the newly vacuumed plush carpeting. It was almost eleven. I followed the din of voices down the hall, which opened up to the atrium.
They were in the middle of a meeting. They meaning everyone, all two-hundred-odd Spectra employees standing in the atrium, crowding around the glass staircase that connected the thirty-first and thirty-second floors. The CEO, Michael Reitman, stood on the staircase, speaking into a microphone. Next to him stood Carole, the Human Resources manager, whom I recognized by her severe bob.
Michael was wrapping up a speech. He said: Spectra is a company run by people, and we take your health very seriously. As our business relies on overseas suppliers, especially those in southern China, we are taking precautionary measures with this announcement of Shen Fever. We are working in accordance with the New York State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the next few weeks, we will keep you abreast of new updates for keeping you safe. We would appreciate your cooperation and compliance.
Scattered applause rained down on us. I joined the flock as inconspicuously as possible. As I scanned the crowd for friendly faces, Blythe caught my eye. She used to work in Bibles, but since her transfer to Art Books, she sometimes pretended I didn't exist. I'd try my luck.
Hey, I whispered, sidling up to her. What's going on?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Severance"
Copyright © 2018 Ling Ma.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
1. Explore the novel’s title. In addition to severance from a normal world of work, what else is severed in Candace’s life? What new connections does she form as a result of being severed?
2. As you read about Spectra’s Bible production process, from the deadly health hazards experienced by the workers to the VIP treatment Candace receives during her business travel, how was your perception of “sacred texts” affected? Are bejeweled religious objects at odds with Christian doctrine? What conflicts arise in the book between religion, morality, and the requirements of contemporary life?
3. As Candace navigates the business world and her family history, how does her understanding of her own identity shift? How do her parents reconcile the Cultural Revolution of their upbringing with the world of supermarkets and the Chinese Christian Community Church? How does Mandarin serve as both a bridge and a barrier for their daughter?
4. Candace chooses to inhabit L’Occitane in the Facility. If you had to be imprisoned in a mall, which store would you choose for your cell?
5. What does Candace’s mother, Ruifang, teach her about being a woman? How are Candace’s relationships with men affected by Candace observing her father, Zhigang, and his beliefs about love and marriage?
6. What is unique about the way Ling Ma weaves a darkly humorous thread through the story line? When did you find yourself laughing out loud? When did you find yourself worrying that a fungal apocalypse could actually happen?
7. What is the effect of the novel’s time line? How does Ling Ma’s use of flashbacks stay true to the way memories reflect and illuminate each other?
8. As Candace learns how to shoot a gun and scavenge for necessities, she proves how determined she is to survive. What is the purpose of survival in the absence of quality of life? How do you personally define “quality of life”?
9. Severance is packed with references to beauty products, clothing stores, and other brands that have defined American consumerism. After the pandemic, what replaces these labels in the survivors’ quest for comfort and camaraderie? When money becomes useless, what new forms of currency emerge?
10. If you had been in Candace’s situation, would you have left town with Jonathan? What accounts for the huge distinction between his approach to work and Candace’s? Would you have accepted Spectra’s final contractand how committed would you be to making sure to fulfill it?
11. Severance shines a spotlight on soul-crushing mind-sets that flourish both before and after the pandemic. What are they? Will profit-driven cultural forces diminish in your lifetime, or will they gain momentum?
12. How is the novel shaped by the presence of the undead who, instead of being predators like traditional zombies, are stuck in a mindless, harmless act? If you succumbed to Shen Fever, what repetitive act would your body perform?
13. How does Bob derive power? Which of his followers did you trust the most, and which the least? How does their bureaucracy compare to Spectra’s?
14. From Candace’s NY Ghost blog to the nostalgia-laden stalkings, the survivors crave a connection to what they’ve lost. Under similar circumstances, which memories and images would you want to stockpile?
15. How did you react to the closing scene? What do you imagine will happen next?