Alfred Hitchcock said his films at essence addressed mundane issues, dressed up in a plot to make them entertaining. Reductively, Rear Window is about a man who can’t decide whether to marry his girlfriend. (This is separate from the McGuffin, a different concept. But layers within layers, like a Russian doll.)
In Severance, Ling Ma interweaves a post-apocalyptic narrative with the tale of a Chinese-American immigrant millennial making her way in New York.
At one level, Severance is about a woman conflicted over breaking up with her boyfriend when he leaves the Big Smoke. Leaving New York would mean leaving her career. Her mother lost her career accompanying her husband from China to the U.S. What is the value of a life without a career, without participation in the workforce and consumer culture?
Leaving New York City would mean leaving a place: a place of significance, a place that provides Candace with identity. She’s left places before – Fujian, in China, and Salt Lake City. She’s acutely conscious of identity dislocation. New York is her carapace. She wants to hunker down.
I suspect it’s no accident the central character in Severance is named Candance. Ling Ma peppers her narrative with brand names and pop culture references. When we think of a single woman in New York, we might think of Candace Bushnell, writer of Sex and the City.
My favourite paragraph:
In Jonathan’s apartment, we used to watch single-woman-in-Manhattan movies, a subgenre of New York movies. There was Picture Perfect, An Unmarried Woman, Sex and the City. The single heroine, usually white, romantic in her solitude. In those movies, there is nearly always this power-walk shot, in which she is shown striding down some Manhattan street, possibly leaving work during rush hour at dusk, the traffic blaring all around and the buildings rising before her. The city was empowering. Even if a woman doesn’t have anything, the movie seemed to say, at least there is the city. The city was posited as the ultimate consolation.
This paragraph seems to me to prefigure the ending (and “The End”, as the pandemic is termed).
Candace spends much of her time in her early months in Manhattan just walking the streets, taking photographs, posting her photos in a blog as NY_ghost. Similarly in her last months.
The subgenre of the single-woman-roaming-Manhattan gets spliced with the post-apocalypse dystopia genre, so Candace is also Will Smith in I Am Legend and Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later, the isolated survivor, the wandering civis post-civilisation. She becomes an urban ghost.
So to my mind this is a novel about place and identity. In the face of apocalypse, various characters are tied to place: Bob the crazy would-be New Order leader drawn to the mall of his childhood; Ashley the former fashion student drawn to her childhood home, specifically her wardrobe; Eddie the NY taxi driver forever bound to his cab. Candace, initially, encloistered in her office, before she realises the working life is redundant, an idea whose time has ended. As her boyfriend knew.
Severance is also, among other things, a critique of consumption and capitalism. In its post-apocalyptic dystopia, infected people – ” the fevered” – mindlessly, endlessly re-enact meaningless rituals from their former lives until their bodies give out, while the handful of survivors go on pillaging “stalks”.
The further I read the more I appreciated how ambitious Ling Ma has been here – it’s not just a post-pandemic dystopia, or a millennial generation satire, or a critique of consumption and capitalism, or a study in cultural dislocation, or an investigation of memory, the place of the past, the past of place, the role of routines and ritual… it’s all that, conveyed in beautiful – sensitive, intelligent, funny, chilling – writing.
What makes life worth living? Is it work? Is it place? Is it people we love?
My second favourite paragraph, an email to Candace from a colleague in China:
You are good at what you do. In these sad, uncertain times, however, it is important to be with people you love. I do not know the details of the epidemic in New York, but my suggestion to you: Leave. Spend time with your family.
Candace no longer has family.
When I ask myself, if Candace were to become fevered, as some of the seeming “survivors” do, what ritual or routine that defined her identity would she loop till death?
My guess: walking. She’d walk city streets till she dropped.
Even if a woman doesn’t have anything, at least there is the city.