In an early chapter of Ling Ma’s debut novel, Severance, a genre-savvy character details the difference between vampire and zombie stories. “With vampire narrative, the danger lies in the villain’s intentions, his underlying character. There are good vampires, there are bad vampires… [The zombie narrative is] not about a specific villain. One zombie can be easily killed, but a hundred zombies is another issue. Only amassed do they really pose a threat. The narrative, then, is not about any individual entity, per se, but about an abstract force: the force of the mob, of mob mentality.”
Severance isn’t quite either sort of story. Set in an alternate 2011, where a fungal infection called Shen Fever turns most of the world into the walking dead, it lacks the fear and violence found in traditional zombie stories. The Fevered are driven not by endless hunger or rage but familiar routine, quietly repeating activities, like watering houseplants or setting tables, until they die of starvation. That leaves Ma free to explore the other big theme of zombie narratives—that the true monsters aren’t the dead, but the living.
Ma’s winding novel follows Candace Chen, a first-generation Chinese immigrant working for a New York book publisher. While she longs to be one of the “art girls” who put together photography and fashion design collections, she’s spent years languishing in Bible production. Every year is a new struggle to package the world’s bestselling book; Candace is tasked with coordinating with Chinese partners to keep the productions affordable. As the world starts to fall apart around her, Candace’s last job is to make sure a set of Bibles accompanied by jewelry for young girls gets made for a client that does not care that the process might be killing workers.
The book’s critique of late capitalism is scathing if not especially subtle. Candace is both a nuanced individual and a stand-in for an entire generation of millennials regularly attacked by elders for their perceived weaknesses even as the fallout of the Great Recession leaves them stuck in unfulfilling jobs. Setting the story in 2011 instead of an amorphous near future allows Ma to muse about the failed promise of Occupy Wall Street, the movement here crumbling due to the spreading infection. When her boyfriend tries to persuade Candace to quit her job and engage in creative pursuits, she feels too trapped by security to take the leap. Even as her friends beg her to leave the heavily infected city, Candace lingers and takes increasingly radical steps to make sure she shows up to work every day.
While occasionally dipping into the past for touching scenes about Candace’s childhood in China or her parents’ early days in America, the narrative largely alternates between Candace’s life in New York before civilization collapsed and her time running with a band of plague survivors. Both have aspects of absurdism, with the survivors led by an IT professional named Bob who’s become a sort of cult leader, guiding his flock to a mysterious facility in the Chicago suburbs where they can start a new life. Bob ordains that the Fevered must be killed to mercifully free them from their behavioral loops, but his group is just as bound to ritual, their days filled with complicated pseudo-religious protocol for group bonding and raiding for supplies. Even a scavenging party on an unauthorized mission to find marijuana feels bound to perform the group’s version of grace before looting a home, though its prayer to be able to bestow its fellow survivors with a massive supply of weed is a lot funnier than the usual recitation.
Just because Ma’s zombies are harmless, doesn’t mean Severance doesn’t have any horror. Severance regularly mixes the mundane or silly with the grotesque. A woman complaining about her elderly neighbor fumbling her keys takes a turn when it ends up marking her as one of New York’s first fever cases. The goofy prayer that the house gives over bountiful weed leads into a scene where Candace sees the maggot-ridden corpse of the home’s former occupant: “They dripped from his chin down to his threadbare T-shirt onto his belly. Flying maggots, larvae maggots, maggoty maggots, maggoted maggots, dancing their maggot mating dance all over his maggoted face.”
While technically post-apocalyptic fiction, Severance shares as much with Then We Came To The End, Joshua Ferris’ meditation on the failure of an advertising agency, as it does with The Walking Dead; Ma plays with voice, alternating between the first-person singular and plural to show how easily an individual comes to identify as part of a collective and how hard it is to have that group fall apart. But, like 28 Days Later, it uses the end of the world to examine what is really important. As things get increasingly dire, people keep telling Candace to go be with her family despite her having no one to go to. She’s lonely in New York when it’s one of the most populous cities in the world, and she’s lonely when she might be only one of a dozen humans left in the United States. If zombie stories are about the terrible power of the mob, Severance asks what kind of life is left to anyone who tries to stand against it.