Ling Ma’s 2018 novel Severance is a book about a zombie apocalypse that involves no cannibalism, no hordes, and no explosions. Instead, Ma deploys zombies who are more like jet-lagged office workers than rabid dogs. Nevertheless, they carry all the horrific weight of the traditional American zombie of anti-capitalist works like George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead. Ma’s “zombies” are people infected with Shen Fever—a fictitious fungal infection that causes loss of cognition but keeps bodies completing the motions of their daily routines. (One infected retail worker, for example, continues to fold clothes regardless of the fact that her flesh is rotting and her jaw is almost entirely detached from her head.) The fungus, named for China’s Shenzhen province, where it emerges from the conditions in a manufacturing district, reveals the pervasiveness of neoliberalism’s networks as it quickly decimates the human population. Though Severance preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by more than a year, its presence on various COVID-19 reading lists is a testament to its relevance in our current pandemic era. In my reading of this prescient novel, I suggest that Severance identifies those sociocultural factors that make neoliberal society especially susceptible to pandemic disease and societal collapse. Its zombies are a horrific indictment of our own loss of self.
The Gothic Office
The novel falls into the subgenre of “office fiction,” which critics have increasingly described as Gothicized. The Gothicization of office fiction has been identified in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (Kobayashi 2), but the last decade or so has seen a massive surge in novels that Tobias Carrol of Literary Hub says describe “the dark side of office life.” Severance is one of these Gothic office novels.
Severance follows Candace Chen, a workaholic millennial who moved to New York after college because she believed she would be able to develop her art in the city. She ultimately lands a job producing Bibles, which is as creatively unfulfilling as it sounds. When Shen Fever begins to spread, Candace’s long-term boyfriend, the epitome of class privilege, announces that he will be leaving on a friend’s yacht and asks Candace to join him. Instead, a newly pregnant Candace stays in New York alone, continuing to work despite the fact that New York City is shut down by Shen Fever even more completely and rapidly than it was shut down by COVID-19 in spring 2020. The rest of the novel details Candace’s attempts at survival once she has reached the end of her employment contract; through these attempts, Severance explores the ways in which neoliberalism and the Information Age have wreaked havoc on our interpersonal relationships and our very humanity.
Generally, when zombies are used as a critique of neoliberalism, the ideology that has done away with social safety nets in favor of economic liberalism and free-market capitalism, the monsters embody excessive desire. They stand in for hunger ad infinitum (Loudermilk 88). Severance diverges from this narrative by creating zombies that, first, are not monsters and, second, embody a sort of desire deficiency. A fine line separates the infected from the uninfected. The infected demonstrate repetitive, patterned behavior caused by the Fever, but the uninfected also fall into patterns—the patterns of neoliberalism, used to bury traumatic experiences or to choose economic determinism as an ideological safety net—revealing the relational impacts of neoliberalism. The system disallows the space necessary for communal knowledge and support and renders these invisible where they are present, as Candace shows through her lack of engagement with the Occupy Wall Street protesters who occupy her attention only as long as they occupy her field of vision. In this novel, nostalgic sentiment only leads to an acquiescence to materialism, ultimately zombifying people. For this reason, creating room for new cultures and connections is a form of resistance that, while it forces a traumatic renegotiation of identity for the protagonist, allows Candace to retain her personhood. The novel’s nonlinear structure embodies the fractured narrative that emerges from traumatic experiences, centering Candace’s loss of connection in a story of societal collapse resulting from neoliberalism, the Internet, and the destruction of temporality and human experience that ensues.
Cathartic Consumption and Consumptive Catharsis
Though Shen Fever is the ultimate consequence of neoliberalism in the novel, widespread health issues among laborers prior to the pandemic reveal similar results on smaller scales. When Candace first learns of Shen Fever, the reader is reminded of an earlier scene in the novel that links illness to the inhumanity of neoliberalism. Candace has been charged with the task of informing a customer that their “Gemstone Bible” project has been shelved because of a lawsuit over the working conditions of the Chinese laborers, who are suffering adverse health effects from inhaling the gemstone particulate. Candace’s customer says, “I don’t want to sound like we don’t care, because obviously we do, but this is disappointing news.” Candace responds, “I understand, I conceded, then almost couldn’t help myself. But the workers are dying, I repeated, as if I knew” (24). Candace’s sympathetic reply shows that she is beginning to see the problem with a system—and her role within that system—that relies on callously dehumanizing its workers.
The relationship shown here among dehumanization, disease, and neoliberalism primes readers for a complex social understanding of the novel’s Shen Fever when it emerges. Like the illnesses of workers in gemstone factories, this fungal infection is believed to have evolved in a sort of primordial soup of manufacturing chemicals (20). The fungus makes its way to the US via shipments of goods, revealing the connections between the US public and the exploitation of laborers overseas. For American consumers, however, this exploitation is an overlooked and unchangeable fact of life, necessary for the maintenance of the mechanisms of consumption that make life in such a society palatable. Candace narrates the novel’s conclusion:
To live in a city is to live the life that it was built for, to adapt to its schedule and rhythms … to consume its offerings. To eat at its restaurants. To drink at its bars. To shop at its stores. To pay its sales taxes. To give a dollar to its homeless. To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?
It is this dedication to routines that comes to define what it means for a person to be fevered, and the infected even mimic pleasure in the quotidian, rhythmic actions they repeat every day. Candace’s, and the reader’s, first glimpse of an infected person is an older woman: she struggles to unlock her apartment but ignores Candace’s offer of help, eventually making it to her couch, where she clicks through television channels, laughing inappropriately at advertisements, news segments about income inequality, and—notably—the Shen Fever pandemic (156). Emergency Medical Services retrieve this woman, but similar behavior is seen in characters without the explanatory pathology. Throughout the novel, Candace names branded products that give her a sense of security because they mark her as a member of a class of prosperous, comfortable people (11). Candace’s mother Ruifang, who develops Alzheimer’s disease late in life, also becomes given to “strange, sensuous pursuits like rinsing our silver coffeepot under a cold tap faucet for abnormally long periods of time, or ordering fifty entrees of mapo tofu, her favorite thing to eat, for some imaginary dinner party” (163).
Not incidentally, Ruifang also provides the clearest explanation for the emergence of self-soothing behaviors rooted in consumerism. Ruifang performs excessive American consumerism to convince others, and herself, that the decision to move from her family home in China to America with her husband was the right one. Her husband Zhigang attempts to assuage this concern by presenting Ruifang with physical comforts that were not available when they lived in rural China. The pair indulge in hot baths and other sensual pleasures, but, ultimately, “homesickness eased in department stores, supermarkets, wholesale clubs, superstores, places of unparalleled abundance. The solution was shopping, Zhigang observed. He was not trying to be reductive” (77). Zhigang’s observation shows that “unparalleled abundance” is exactly what residents of neoliberal America need to prove that their standards of living are high. Because the lives of so many are defined by resource scarcity, resource abundance must be the sign of a good life. This emotional reliance on economic consumption is one of many things that Linnie Blake, who studies the 21st-century Gothic, calls “traumatic dislocations of post-war geopolitics” that appear in Gothic fiction, often embodied in the zombie. According to Blake, these “traumatic dislocations” range from “the consumer fetishism and economic collapse of the 1970s to the contemporary economic dominance of global neo-liberalism,” two things that Severance addresses in the repetitive behaviors of Candace, Ruifang, and the numerous fevered characters who appear throughout the novel (223).
Shen Fever, COVID-19, and the Destruction of the Mythical NYC
It almost goes without saying that this novel bears a sometimes-eerie resemblance to today’s COVID-19 pandemic. If you can count on your fingers the number of times you’ve been anywhere other than the grocery store since all this started, you will feel a painful sense of camaraderie with the victims of Shen Fever. We, too, are going through the motions, missing all the qualia of life in the mythical and retrospectively exalted “Before Times.” There is something unsettling, too, in the novel’s fascination with New York City when viewed in parallel to the thrall which news reports from the city held in the early days of the US COVID-19 crisis. We rubber-neckers view COVID-19-ravaged New York with the same morbid curiosity we feel when we see the city destroyed in Marvel movies. The destruction of this gateway to America, we fear, is sign and symbol of the disaster we hope we do not deserve, the disaster we fear will soon befall the rest of us.
One major difference, though, is that, whereas COVID-19 is viral, Shen Fever is fungal. The fungal infection is inescapable. Masks are ineffective, and person-to-person transmission is rare. This shows the ubiquitous harm of neoliberalism, but it does not pit neighbor against neighbor as the communicable COVID-19 does. No fists are thrown in pursuit of the last package of toilet paper. Unity and companionship are Ma’s solutions, but they have come to be terrifying to survivors of the COVID-19 pandemic. This makes our lived situation perhaps more horrific than the apocalyptic disease scenario that Candace lives out. The community that should save us is often what puts us at risk, especially in the US, where mask-wearing is so contentious.
Ling Ma’s Severance is particularly interesting as an apocalyptic novel because it takes place in an alternate timeline that split from ours in the year 2011. In this year, Occupy Wall Street protesters challenged the unrealistic and dehumanizing demands of neoliberal America. Citizens of Candace’s timeline did not take the protesters’ warnings seriously, and, though Candace’s ability to reconstruct her identity as one based in relationships shows that perhaps not all hope is lost for her, it is not at all clear that the world will recover. Our timeline has also largely foregone decisions that would free people from the stringent demands of neoliberalism. Instead of Shen Fever, we have COVID-19, Capitalism Fever, and a climate crisis. The question we should ask: is Ma’s novel a warning, or is it a description of events already in motion?
Blake, Linnie. “Consumed out of the Good Land: The American Zombie, Geopolitics and the Post-War World.” American Gothic Culture: An Edinburgh Companion. Edinburgh University Press, September 20, 2018.
Carrol, Tobias. “The Dark Side of Office Life: Workplace Novels that Explore the Dystopic and Surreal.” Literary Hub, August 12, 2016. https://lithub.com/the-dark-side-of-office-life/. Accessed 12 Nov. 2020.
Kobayashi, Masaomi. “Bartlebys: Gothicizing Office Fiction.” Palgrave Communications, vol. 4, Dec. 2018
Loudermilk, A. “Eating ‘Dawn’ in the Dark: Zombie Desire and Commodiﬁed Identity in George A. Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead.’” Journal of Consumer Culture, vol. 3, no. 1, 2003, pp. 83-108.
Ma, Ling. Severance. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.
Macfarlane, Karen E. “Zombies and the Viral Web.” Horror Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 2018, pp. 231-247.
Author bio: Megan Swartzfager is an MA student in English with a concentration in literature, medicine, and culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her interests are in the politicization of medical knowledge, social determinants of health, and the deployment of gendered rhetoric within medical professions.
Image credit: Film still from Dawn of the Dead, dir. George A. Romero (1978).