While zombie-story-as-critique-of-capitalism is nothing new, Ling Ma’s “Severance” still manages to earn this gentleman’s recommendation. I’m always a sucker for a good post-apocalypse story, plus it’s Halloween season 2018, and fictional accounts of the end of the world are a particularly welcome respite from nonfictional ones.
“Severance” is the story of Candace Chen, whose parents brought her from China to America when she was a child. As an adult, Candace works for a publisher in New York, but rather than some book related task that brings her fulfillment, she oversees the production of Bibles. (Naturally, to keep costs down, these Bibles are produced in China, where workers are apt to die from the gemstone dust they inhale while affixing said baubles to fashion Bibles.)
Meanwhile reports of a mysterious fever begin to crop up. The death tolls rise, but they are prohibited from being published so as not to get people all riled up about the end of the world. Rather than experiencing an insatiable craving for brains, those afflicted by the fever find themselves mindlessly repeating the routines they somewhat less mindlessly repeated while not infected (a salesperson folds clothes despite a missing jaw, a rotting child “reads” an upside down book, a mother perpetually sets a table). What a satirical illness!
When Shen Fever arrives in the United States, Candace keeps plugging away. She plugs so much, she ends up as the last employee in her office, the others having succumbed to fever or fled the city to be with their families. Eventually, she leaves the office in search of more humans. She finds them, and it’s OK for a bit: they camp, they pray, they scavenge for supplies in the homes of the fevered, they execute the fevered that remain alive, they continue their journey to the “Facility” (as their leader calls it), a place they believe should make a fine home as they endure the aftermath of the end of the world.
Of course, as zombie stories always point out, the living are often the greatest threat, and while there are few metaphorical fireworks and fewer literal ones, this indeed proves to be the case: religious fervor leads to Candace being imprisoned in a department store.
“Severance” alternates chapters between the humdrum of the publishing industry and the humdrum of a world ravaged by sickness. It’s a deadpan satire that pairs well with a perusal of the latest funding cuts to the Center for Disease Control.