I wasn’t sure what to expect from Ling Ma’s debut novel, SEVERANCE, but the only true label I can ascribe to it, is that it is first and foremost a millennial novel. Ma is the first author to so thoroughly nail the working ethos, apathy, and thirst for belonging that encapsulates millennials.
Set in the present, Candace Chen is your basic child of immigrants-turned young professional, working in New York City. After her Chinese parents pass away, she is left adrift and instead throws herself into her work of monitoring the production Bibles for the publishing company she works for and watching movies in her boyfriend’s basement apartment. Amidst all of this, she barely notices the rise of Shen Fever and the collapse of civilization. And yet, she carries on until she cannot any longer. She is soon picked up by another group of survivors led by the mysterious and enigmatic former IT tech Bob. He promises a new safe-haven that they call the “Facility,” but is it as safe as Bob promises?
Candace is pretty much the perfect character to pull off in this kind of story and Ma characterizes her so well that I found myself liking and disliking Candace throughout SEVERANCE. The choices she makes are clearly self sabotaging in places, but at the same time understandable considering she is attempting to cope with grief and displacement. The struggle of trying to “make it” in the real world, while also pulling meaning from her own life and those around her resonates with myself as a millennial, while also sympathizing with her lack of overall foundation. Candace was never close with her parents, but their loss is still deeply felt.
I also have to comment on the fact that Candace oversaw the production of Bibles, because this perfectly sums up how millennials to me broadly see religion. It is something customized, mass produced, and tailored to each generation (she oversees a gemstone bible that’s being marketed to teens). It’s a masterful analogy, intentional or not, of how this generation treats religion as a whole.
Ma does not skimp on anything, and while this slowed the novel down some, the monotony of Candace’s work life weighs heavily on the reader as it does on her. The way she throws herself into work to escape the hardships of her home/love life, as well as appear useful to society as a whole, it further proves that this book will resonate with most millennial or zoomer readers.
I’m still unsure how I feel about the latter half of the book, which I won’t spoil here, but the inclusion of Shen Fever, that forces the infected to perform the same tasks over and over until their bodies decompose, is another perfect distillation of the anxiety and terror that millennials have for the menial tasks and grunt we have been trapped in doing, thanks to late stage capitalism and a vacuous economy.
SEVERANCE is a startlingly intimate, reflection on our post-modern culture through the lens of a generation, who has yet to have their say. I will look forward to whatever Ma produces next.