The Pandemic as Prescience: Reading 'Severance' in the Time of COVID-19

Ling Ma's book depicts a world, specifically the microcosm of New York, where the infrastructure has already collapsed.

As COVID-19 rages around us, a novel written by Ling Ma which was released in 2018 is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Severance follows the aftermath of a global pandemic called Shen Fever that originates in China and spreads across the world killing most of the world’s population. The fictional disease is contracted through breathing in fungal spores rendering the infected prone to performing repetitive actions until they starve to death.

Severance depicts a world, specifically the microcosm of New York, where the infrastructure has already collapsed. The story skillfully entwines the present and the past of a millennial, Candace Chen who joins a gang of survivors as they make their way to a sanctuary sinisterly called the ‘Facility’. The gang is led by the authoritarian Bob who serves as the primary antagonist to Candace. Bob attempts to ritualise and organise their post-apocalyptic state of being to inject a semblance of order into the group. She bristles at this coercive circumscription amidst chaos while her sedate life has been upended by a pandemic that is unpredictable and unmanageable.

Ling Ma

Candace is a production assistant in the Bible division of a large publishing company called Spectra. She is also an intermittent photographer who walks around New York to upload her pictures of the city on a WordPress blog called the NY Ghost. When the pandemic strikes, she is offered a significant amount of money to keep turning up for work. As the city empties of people, it becomes uninhabitable even for Candace who thinks of herself as unattached to any significant relations.

The novel is a post-apocalyptic bildungsroman as we learn about Candace’s life as she was growing up and her immigrant parents’ poignant histories as they had to adapt to a new life in the US. This backdrop is also crucial to what kind of parents they turned out to be and, in turn, what kind of childhood the protagonist had. Thus the pandemic unravels the homogenous capitalist utopia as the sole driving force in our existential narratives, as deep-seated alliances and preferences long buried in a distant childhood or a conveniently erased past come to the forefront. What is striking about Severance is its representation of the collective pandemic fever as deeply entangled with one individual’s particular history to other people and to the city. The catastrophe is thus not limited only to the domains of public health, epidemiology, science or economics.

Candace is an assiduous worker even though she feels disconnected and disenchanted with her work. Yet work is the taproot of modern existence that systematically organises leisure, family and passion around it as its own subsidiary rootlets. In the absence of these other avenues, the protagonist faces a dilemma. Severance draws subtle and complex distinctions between the subjectivities of routine, rote, normalcy and banality. Shen Fever is a disease driven by repetition and routine as the fevered repeat the same actions over and over again like zombies. There are minor variations to their repetitions but they do not have any genuine significance. Yet, Candace wonders whether her life before was not a series of comfortable repetitions as well. The novel evokes a suggestive parallel between the state of the diseased mind, entrapped and overworked by industrial modernity, on the one hand, and the fevered who act through their repetitious gestures without any self-reflective awareness, on the other hand.

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As COVID-19 forces people to work from home, it becomes clear that work and working hours are artificially constructed to meet the demands of the capitalist system. At the same time, there is a yearning for things to return to normalcy and routine so that life can be resumed or repeated along the more familiar and habitual pathways. Candace remarks wryly with a similar sensibility when there is a storm, “We all hoped the storm would knock things over, fuck things up enough but not too much. We hoped the damage was bad enough to cancel work the next morning but not so bad that we couldn’t go to brunch instead.” The anti-capitalist satire of Severance does not spring a neat utopia elsewhere either. The post-apocalyptic dystopia sketched here denies Candace a safe utopia or a moderate alternative, instead requiring her to turn to memory and the pasts to reconstruct an alternative future for herself.

What, then, is that moderate alternative in the case of a pandemic? In the novel, the city, and its institutions and organisations, require people to follow quarantine plans, adopt air filtration measures, and wear N95 masks. But as the title suggests, the pandemic is an irrevocable crisis – a complete severance with the present as we know it. The post-apocalyptic story is, in that sense, points to an overthrow of the system in its breakdown and failure. In the novel, the ennui that characterises Candace’s voice and life suggests that there is not much difference between being sequestered in an office tower and an impassive zombie. It is in the face of this enormous banal terror of either the gradually socialised repetition of office work or the suddenly enforced repetition of the pandemic fever that Ling Ma erects nostalgia as a tricky recompense.

That this crisis is an eminently personal rupture is suggested by the disease’s aetiological connection to habit. While the pandemic may be a problem to be centrally managed by a community, the disease is deeply personal in its repercussions and the renegotiations it demands of our pasts and memories. It is also habits that are suddenly broken and suspended. Candace is an orphan but half of the narrative is a slow, poignant embrace of her family and their histories as immigrants in the US from Fuzhou. Indeed, in her reminiscences, she remembers how her mother Ruifang has found comfort in prayer as the routine affords some control over her life. Modern life is similarly comprised of umpteen repetitive tasks with some holding more meaning than the others. For example, Ruifang prayed for many things over the years but she always prayed that she and her family would go back to Fuzhou – back to the habitual presences of home.

The pandemic in Severance also triggers an analogous desire where people travel back home. What is the connection between the nightmare of disease and the yearning for home? Does disease activate a dormant homing beacon within us? Severance may ostensibly be about a dystopia in the aftermath of a global crisis or a corporate satire or a zombie story but it also sketches the conscious rearrangements of her time by the protagonist.

Medical staff at the Howrah State General Hospital. Photo: PTI

When the offsite work programmes are stalled, it affects the very method of time for Candace as structure and division of the day are lost to a ceaseless and seemingly contentless present. Time appears to be constantly deferred as the protagonist tries to figure out things. Yet it is this regenerative moment in the post-apocalypse that turns this dystopia into a bildungsroman. Unlike science fiction narratives where we are all at stake collectively, Severance is private in its narration of destruction and subsequent attempts at recreation.

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In the gradual dismantling of the city, the city is made real for Candace. Though she had once documented the city through her photographs, the reality of the city becomes newly minted from memories and experiences. In the novel’s denouement, where Candace decides to move to Chicago, she makes peace with the city and the myths it had stood for and the city it has been for her. She says toward the end of the book:

“To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”

The architecture of civilisation in Severance is not only of routine but also of a topography that contains within it the potential to implode and self-destruct. The narrative catalogue of the post-apocalyptic story therefore does not end with total annihilation. There is always a limited scope for survival and revival – and a way towards a new order of habit.

Susan Haris is a doctoral candidate in literature and philosophy at IIT Delhi.