Ling Ma’s Disaster Fiction

The Business of Survival

Ling Ma’s disaster fiction.


The millennial generation—whose oldest members are 37, and the youngest 22—has come of age at a strange time. Over the past two decades, huge advances in technology have made the world smaller and noisier; meanwhile, the reach of capitalism has ramped up to such an excruciating degree that almost everything has become a commodity, including our public personas. From the outset, millennials have also found themselves in a vortex of economic insecurity, with many of them entering the job market just as the Great Recession set in.

Today, more millennials live with their parents than previous generations did. We’re marrying later, if we marry; we’re having children later, and fewer of them. It is nearly impossible to own a home without financial help—an inheritance, a down payment from the in-laws. We are killing industries left and right, but that’s because we don’t have the income to sustain them. Many of us have bachelor’s degrees, but also the debt that came from acquiring them.

This swirl of pressures has birthed a distinct millennial sensibility; it has also helped define this generation’s novels, which focus on the experience of economic and creative failure. What happens when you’re ambivalent about the world of commerce around you? What happens when you stop doing what you’re supposed to do? What happens when you do everything you’re supposed to do… and things still don’t work out?

In Weike Wang’s recent debut novel, Chemistry, the narrator abruptly quits her PhD program. “Finally the lab coat comes off,” she tells us. “I place it neatly into the drawer. Then I smash five beakers on the ground. I shout, Beakers are cheap, while the whole lab gathers to watch.” In Anelise Chen’s So Many Olympic Exertions, another novel of academic despair, we find the protagonist, Athena, struggling to complete her dissertation. Instead of working on it, she takes up swimming; after losing her funding, she moves back in with her parents. Even Goodbye, Vitamin, last year’s sleeper hit from Rachel Khong, features a protagonist who, at the end of a failed engagement, moves home to be with her family—home being not merely a place of comfort but, for many millennials, the only place to turn.

Failure, of course, is as common in literature as it is in life. But the challenges that these characters face (and fail to overcome) belong uniquely to their generation, striving as they are under a very different set of social and economic conditions than the ones that helped buoy their parents. And even when they do succeed, they look at those achievements askance, failing to appreciate the lives they’ve fallen into. The luckiest of them live in Brooklyn-like neighborhoods and attend to their passions. Yet economic anxiety sets the scene for their lives, whether in the foreground or as a sinister background hum. Adrift in their careers, their relationships, or both, these millennial protagonists sleepwalk through life, shaken awake only by cataclysmic events outside of their control: a financial crisis, the illness of a parent, or, in the case of Ling Ma’s debut novel, Severance, a global outbreak of disease.

In Severance, we meet Candace Chen, a former visual-arts student who has gotten by at her publishing job for five years, mostly by keeping her head down. She works in Bible production, the stodgiest department of the publishing house, though she’s occasionally tempted by the allure of the art girls—art being the more stylish, creative department. Candace doesn’t have much in the way of ambition, but that doesn’t seem to bother her; for the most part, she lives an ordinary life. Having recently lost her parents, she watches movies with her writer boyfriend, Jonathan, in his apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; for a while, she keeps a photography blog titled NY Ghost.

Then the pandemic starts. A spore-borne disease dubbed Shen Fever, originating in Asia, spreads to the United States, causing those who become infected to quickly deteriorate, falling into strange behavioral patterns. A fevered shop girl folds shirts in the window of a Juicy Couture store, though half of her jaw is missing; an infected family repeats their dinner service over and over, mumbling grace even when there’s no food on the table.

At first, Candace decides to remain at her job while New York slowly dies around her. (Her boss convinces her to stay so that when she does lose her job, she can get… severance.) But eventually the pandemic forces her to flee. Joining a pack of survivors led by a charismatic IT guy named Bob—“He was Goth when he felt like it,” Ma writes, with the kind of sharp, offhand characterization that makes Severance a pleasure to read—Candace realizes that her survival may be more difficult with others than apart from them.

In alternating chapters, Severance switches between the apocalyptic present and the deep past, illuminating Candace’s character and family history as the novel speeds ahead and the chances for her survival appear more and more remote. “Memories beget memories,” Candace says as she treks through the Midwest. “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.”

Over the course of these reflections, we learn about her immigrant parents and the beginning and the end of her relationship with Jonathan. Ma writes most of these scenes with an oddball tenderness. “My heart barked confusedly with love,” Candace thinks, seeing Jonathan after a long absence; later, in bed, he touches her body deliberately and carefully, “as if separating egg whites from yolk.”

It’s this movement between past and present that makes the novel work: As Candace’s future becomes increasingly uncertain, and her path more dangerous, we come to realize what she’s already lost—long before the pandemic hit. This feat of pacing and plot is also what makes Severance stand out among recent works of millennial fiction: The whole novel is, in a way, about how we are but an accretion of everything that’s ever happened to us—our habits, our choices, the choices of our lovers and parents, all come back refigured as memory, knit irreversibly into our character. The disease itself forces people to return to the past, even those who are not afflicted by it—like Candace, who, as she faces her own mortality, recalls how she came to be the person that she is today.

Early in the novel, on a typical supply-gathering “stalk,” Candace, as the newbie of the group, has a gun placed in her hands. She had attempted to hide a fevered young girl who’d escaped the group’s initial scan of the premises. As her punishment—“Let this be a lesson to you to be more observant next time”—she’s instructed to shoot the girl, to “release” her. Candace does, and Ma describes the scene in all of its violence. “She raised her blue eyes and looked at me, as the sixth shot hit her in the cheek, and the seventh reached the forehead…. I just kept shooting, my hands welded to the humming carbine.”

The scene is our first glimpse that the gang of survivors that Candace has stumbled upon are not necessarily her path to salvation. Bob, as charismatic as he is, is more cult leader than hero, but leaving the group could be just as dangerous. It also gives us some insight into Candace’s own psyche: When everything is stripped away, what kind of value does she see in human life? As the story develops, we are also left with another question: What kind of value does she see in her own?

Tense and elegant, Ma’s writing here masterfully treads the line between genre fiction and literature. Part bildungsroman, part horror flick, Severance thrillingly morphs into a novel about self-worth, about the kinds of value we place on our own lives. Describing a fight with Jonathan in the days before Shen Fever, Candace thinks:

What I didn’t say was: I know you too well. You live your life idealistically. You think it’s possible to opt out of the system. No regular income, no health insurance. You quit jobs on a dime. You think this is freedom but I still see the bare, painstakingly cheap way you live, the scrimping and saving, and that is not freedom either…. In this world, money is freedom. Opting out is not a real choice.

These might all be good points, but when money too is no longer freedom—it isn’t all that useful during an apocalypse—Candace doesn’t exactly have a choice, either. Or at least she isn’t willing to make one.

Despite its gory, zombie-thriller elements, Severance is really about our moment. In the world of Ma’s novel, all the benchmarks of a happy and fulfilling life have been so obliterated by apocalypse that to ponder the quality of Candace’s future seems nearly impossible. This isn’t too far from how many young people today feel about their own lives, pandemic or no. A crash is on its way—an economic crash, a political crash, an environmental crash. The current state of affairs has long been untenable. Some of us may get to the other side, but the business of survival—of making it, and making ourselves happy—seems grim. One day, Severance posits, everything we know will be gone. What then?

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