A lot has already been written about the eerie propheticism of Ling Ma’s 2018 debut novel Severance, in which a pandemic originating in China shuts down facilities and services and fells entire societies around the world. It is indeed impossible to read the book without shuddering at the accuracy with which Ma depicts the initial frivolous attitude and skepticism people hold about masks—a frivolity that is soon followed by terror, alienation, unraveling, and displacement, all of which have come to pass in the real world. She even touches upon the race and class divide that has characterized the toll COVID-19 continues to take. But beyond the immediate comparisons, Severance is a story about what it means to make a life when one has been removed—whether willingly or by force—from one’s familiar surroundings, and the faith and perseverance required in order to call a new place home.
Shen Fever is an airborne fungal infection that turns the ill into zombie-like human shells who repeat certain everyday actions—setting the table, reading a book, driving a taxi—over and over again, ignorant to their surroundings and physical state, until finally they perish from hunger or exposure or are killed by uninfected looters. Repetition, too, features in the life of Candace, Severance’s protagonist and the daughter of deceased Fujianese immigrants who came to the United States from China to fulfill her father’s academic and career dreams shortly after the Cultural Revolution. Before the outbreak, Candace was living like a kind of clone of her mother, wearing her old dresses and attempting to mimic her careful skincare regimen. This repetition of her mother’s lifestyle echoes Candace’s mother’s obsession with daily rituals (and especially personal care rituals), which Candace only learns to appreciate after her mother is gone. Her tether to both family and family history gone, Candace learns to appreciate the ritualistic habits that connect us to people, places, and the work of being human. In her lifetime, her mother had told her that what she does every day matters. Now Candace is learning that these things can matter to one’s very core.
The alienation and displacement experienced by all people amidst the Shen Fever pandemic is merely a continuation, for Candace, of what has come before. After her parent’s emigration, she was left behind in China for several years during her early childhood while they saved enough money to buy her a plane ticket to Salt Lake City. Following her college graduation and their premature death, she moved to New York and became a liaison for a book production company, which required her to spend much of her time in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. When the infection makes its way to the States and she becomes the last of her company to remain in a deserted New York City—really, one of the last healthy people to remain in the city at all—this isolation and detachment almost seems to make sense. At this point, Candace is both an immigrant and a person resisting an inevitable immigration. Like her parents before her, she is all alone, a stranger in what has become a strange land, and has no resources with which to get by and no one with whom to communicate. But at the same time, she holds strong in a dying New York for as long as she possibly can before leaving, maintaining her sense of sanity and humanity by once again preserving a repetitious schedule of waking hours, work assignments, and photography tours of the city, even when those actions seem to have lost their meaning.
In a flashback to Candace’s parents’ early days in the U.S., Ma recounts the couple’s loneliness, estrangement, and difficulty in making friends. She then goes on to depict their first time attending a church run by and intended for immigrants from China. Having no religious affiliation whatsoever, they initially consider joining the church for purely social reasons. But at their first mass, the pastor compares the experience of immigrants to that of the Hebrews, freed from bondage in Egypt only to wander the desert for forty years. He assures them that though moving to a new land, much like wandering the desert, can feel pointless, hopeless, and tedious—at times even tragic—it is a natural and essential part of the fresh start offered by a new country. It is this incredibly affecting sermon, no less than the friendships formed with other members of the community, that leads Candace’s parents to a life of faith. By accepting alienation as an inseparable part of the immigrant’s experience, they are able to begin to move on from it and form a new life.
Now, having fled a rotting New York City devoid of necessary infrastructure, Candace finds herself trapped within the commune she has joined for protection. Her commune confidants having perished one by one, Candace is left to fend for herself against Bob, the group’s leader, who is revealed to be power-hungry and—upon discovering that she is pregnant—changes her status from equal member to prisoner. At first, Candace tries her luck at another form of repetition—she attempts to distract Bob and win his good graces by telling story after story without end like a dystopic Scheherazade. But eventually she realizes that once her baby is born, she will no longer even be deemed worthy of Bob’s protection, and her child might be taken away from her. She must make a choice: stay in the relative and temporary safety of her current situation, or take a risk intended on creating a future in which she and her child might live a happy and meaningful life.
It is not an easy choice, especially in a world that has been essentially shut down. Leaving the commune would be an immense challenge. It would mean giving up on shelter and a regular supply of food and venturing back out into a country ravaged by disease and drained of its population and resources—a no man’s land of automatons whose repetitions have lost their meaning. But leaving would be her only shot at a second chance, a fresh start—both for Candace herself and for her unborn child. As the daughter of immigrants who left family and a familiar life in China for a land that often seemed strange, unfriendly, and painfully foreign, she knows that the only way to go is out and away, to endure the lonely desert in order to make a life.
What you do every day matters, Candace seems to remind herself. Though engaging in repetition and rituals may feel like standing in place, they are actually the building blocks of meaning. But sometimes, Candace knows, one must change those rituals, make a choice to tread on the harder path, break out of familiar habits of survival, and venture out into the world.