If you've spent much time reading personal essays on the Internet, then (a) you're a masochist, and (b) you've probably noticed a subgenre of the form that involves the author explaining why they left New York. The pieces are usually bittersweet and elegiac; seldom, if ever, do they say "My company transferred me to the Denver office" or "I just got tired of paying $20 for a hamburger."
In a way, Ling Ma's shocking and ferocious novel, Severance, is a play on the "Why I left New York" theme, but it's one you'll actually want to read. The novel's protagonist, Candace Chen, departs the city she's called home for years not because of a tough job market or skyrocketing rent, but because the world as we know it is coming to an end. It's a fierce debut from a writer with seemingly boundless imagination.
Candace's life in New York might not be what she dreamed of, but it's not all that bad. She has a respectable job at a publishing production firm, where she outsources printing jobs to facilities in China. She and her boyfriend pass the time watching movies in his basement apartment. As a hobby, she maintains NY Ghost, a blog featuring her photographs of life in the city.
But then things start to get complicated. A mysterious disease called Shen Fever, a fungal infection that originated in China, starts to move through the country, turning its victims into, essentially, zombies. The death count rises so quickly that the news media, fearing a panic, stops reporting it.
Soon, Candace is — as near as she can tell — one of the only living people in the nation. "After the End came the Beginning," she explains. "And in the Beginning, there were eight of us, then nine — that was me — a number that would only decrease. We found one another after fleeing New York for the safer pastures of the countryside." Their ragtag group is led by Bob, a humorless IT specialist who promises to lead them to a safe place called "the Facility" in a Chicago suburb.
They group gathers supplies by going on "stalks" — expeditions into houses, some filled with living but infected people. They execute any ailing residents and loot the homes. "We were ashamed of leaving people behind, of taking our comforts where we could find them, of stealing from those who could not defend themselves. We had known ourselves to be cowards and hypocrites, pernicious liars really, and to find this suspicion confirmed was not a relief but a horror."
By the time they reach the Facility, Candace has soured on the destination and the group's Svengali leader: "The Facility means more to Bob than just a place to live. It is the manifestation of his shoddy ideology. He dictates and enforces the rules, rules that only he fully knows and understands. He sees us as subjects, to reward or to punish." Something has to give. And it does.
Severance goes back and forth in time, contrasting Candace's tedious office job with her travels across post-apocalyptic America. It's a technique Ma uses to great effect — it's jarring in a great way, making the horror of her new circumstances all the more intense. It works especially well in the novel's most terrifying scene, when Bob orders Candace to execute a young, ailing girl — directly afterwards, Ma shifts scenes to Candace's job interview, where she tries to explain to an executive why she'd be good at overseeing the production of Bibles.
And while Severance works beautifully as a horror novel, there's much more to it than that. It's a wicked satire of consumerism and work culture — the character of Bob comes across as a typical, power-hungry middle manager; Ma seems to be suggesting that even in the event of an apocalypse, you can't escape pointless bureaucracy. But Ma never overplays her hand — art that's critical of capitalism (or any political or economic system) can turn didactic and humorless very quickly, and Severance never does.
That's in part because of Ma's exceptionally dry sense of humor. Severance is the kind of satire that induces winces rather than laughs, but that doesn't make it any less entertaining — Ma exhibits an admirable restraint throughout the novel, never giving in to tired clichés or overwrought sermonizing. It's a stunning, audacious book with a fresh take on both office politics and what the apocalypse might bring: This is the way the world ends, Ma seems to be saying, not with a bang but a memo.