What Ling Ma’s “Severance” tells us about being a young person in a pandemic

On World Book Day, MEDIAGIRLS Editorial Intern Melody Tuan explores what Ling Ma’s book Severance can tell us about being a young person in a pandemic.

(Contains minor spoilers.) 

Candance Chen is a young New Yorker clinging onto all sense of routine in the face of a global pandemic. Sounds familiar, right? Except, Candace isn’t one of us. Candance is the protagonist of Ling Ma’s novel, Severance, published in 2018. 

Severance is a satirical science fiction novel by Chinese American author Ling Ma traversing themes of capitalism, immigration, and work culture. The novel is centered around Candance, an Asian-American Bible product coordinator trying to find her way amidst an apocalyptic New York city ridden by Shen Fever. Shen Fever is a disease originated in Shenzhen, China through infectious fungal spores. While the disease isn’t fatal by deathly means, the later stages of the disease cause a permanent “loss of consciousness.” The infected essentially become zombies cycling through an infinite loop of routine: setting and resetting a table, folding and refolding clothes, or trying on dresses.  

Unlike actual zombies, the fevered do not attack or try to eat healthy human beings. The narrator observes that Shen Fever is reminiscent of our habitual nature. Candace’s narratives flash between the past and present, altering between her journey to The Facility, a sanctuary for survivors and her nights wandering in Fuzhou longing for a sense of home. Candace critiques the conscious yet mindless behaviors that manifest with memory and routine. 

“Shen Fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories. But what is the difference between the fevered and us? Because I remember too, I remember perfectly. My memories replay, unprompted, on repeat. And our days, like theirs, continue in an infinite loop. We drive, we sleep, we drive some more.”

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic we are currently experiencing in 2021, Ma’s novel eerily predicts a conundrum many of us face: Who are we without our daily habits and occupations? Like the fevered, many of us are shuffling through our homes grasping at shreds of what we once had. We wake up in the morning and make our coffee before sitting down at our laptops, trying to complete our daily work while looping memories. 

As Shen Fever intensifies, Candance turns to her photography blog, NY Ghost. Her blog becomes a de facto news source where readers requested pictures of their old neighborhoods and favorite places in New York. Much like in real life, this calls for some critical media literacy skills to navigate. The blog is a treasure trove of nostalgia as well as a platform for survivors to communicate and express sorrows over their current situation. Even as readership dwindles due to Shen Fever, Candance still continues to blog and draft posts for NY Ghost. Why? A partial answer is provided through a quote from Bob, a former IT guy who leads a survival group:

“The internet is the flattening of time. It is the place where the past and the present exist on a single plane. But proportionally, because the present calcifies into the past, even now, even as we speak, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the internet almost wholly consists of the past. It is a place we go to commune with the past.” 

For us in 2021, the internet is both an homage to the past, but also a desperate attempt to exist in the present. The internet and social media keep us connected to the world. It’s a way for us to be able to find purpose and solace during troubled times. While it’s not inherently bad, the nature of technology can be all-consuming and counteractive, much like dwelling on the past. 

“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.” We have to move on. Candance’s life has relied on this concept, from leaving China, to Utah, to New York, to Chicago, to wherever else she must go. This fate is not without consequences as Candance embodies the adverse effects of a competitive late-capitalist society. Though alive, Candance is weathered and alone, constantly having to adapt to new customs to survive. While Severance may not be an optimistic portrayal of the pandemic, it offers an unforgiving look to where we stand while asking us to question the way we live our lives.


Melody Tuan is an undergraduate student at Simmons University majoring in English writing and minoring in Asian studies and Art. She’s an international student from Taiwan who loves rummaging night markets and devouring street food. Deeply inspired by cultural studies and creative expression, she writes with curiosity about identity and media influence.






Featured Image: by Lilane Calfee.

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