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1, Sep 30, 2018

My thought on Severance by Ling Ma

Filed under: Book — admin @ 3:32 pm

Severance by Ling Ma is for sure not a pleasant read, at least not for me. It makes readers heavy-hearted.

Candace Chen, the protagonist of the novel, 5-year New Yorker, first generation American, both parents dead, millennial work-bee, found herself pregnant without any intention of letting her boyfriend know. The boyfriend is leaving New York. Then Shen Fever shrouds New York apocalyptically like a real doomsday. People drop dead like flies. Nothing is more depressing than this! Candace joins a group of survivors headed by Bob.

The book shifts back and forth from memories of her parents to pre-Shen Fever life, and to present life after Shen Fever.

The book is saturated with memories of her life in China and her parents. But she wants to tell you that she had an unhappy childhood because of her mother. Through her memories of her mother, she basically accused her of being an abusive parent. No loving memory of a dead mom, even though her mother keeps coming back to her in her dream, urging her to escape the Facility before the baby is born. (pp. 185-190)

She is dead against looking back at one’s past. “It’s too depressing, too soul-crushingly sad, to reminisce. The past is a black hole, cut into the present day like a wound, and if you come too close, you can get sucked in. You have to keep moving.” (p. 120)

Bob’s Facility is like a religious cult. “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.” Bob imposes on Candace solitary confinement after he learned that Candace intended to leave his cult. The book shows how easily people surrender themselves to the arbitrary dictator like Bob!

The book also throws some light on the life of millennial in New York. They impress me as shameless, purposeless, free yet rootless, smoker, heavy-drinker, and irresponsible.

The book also provides a glimpse of globalization of capitalism. Work, no matter where you are, is tedious, jarring, mechanical, senseless, and dehumanized. Those who succumb to Shen Fever perform repetitive tasks until they drop dead, as if describing people on the modern assembly line, doing repetitive work until they drop dead.

Jonathan, Candace’s begone boyfriend seems to be the author’s voice, “If you are an individual employed by a corporation or an institution, … then the odds are leveraged against you. The larger party always wins. It can’t see you, but it can crush you… I’ve never worked a full-time job again,.. I work enough to get by, doing part-time or freelance gigs. Most of all, I want my time and my efforts to be my own.” (p.137) “I don’t want to hustle 24/7 just to make rent.” (p.200)

In many ways, the book is a good example of show and not tell.

Lastly, let me tackle the meaning of the name of the book–Severance. It comes from severance package or severance payout that a company gives to its laid-off employees. It could means “action of ending a connection or relationship” or “the state of being separated or cut off.”

In this book, it means many things:
(1) Candace’s parents separating from the land of their birth and culture when they moved to America(p.188)
(2) Candace separation from her past and boyfriend, from herself, and finally from the prison-like Bob’s Facility.
(3) Symbolically, it could mean soul and feeling being separated from numb bodies in modern city. (pp.136-7)

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