SEVERANCE: Not Just the End of the World As We Know It

There are books that seep into you as you are reading them. Unexpectedly, you find yourself thinking about them while you’re performing everyday tasks: watching TV, eating, getting ready for bed, basically doing anything other than reading that particular book. Severance by Ling Ma was released this week. Unlike its fictional Shen Fever that slowly infects the earth’s inhabitants and causes them to robotically repeat menial tasks until death, it had me excited to think deeply about its important themes: survival, living in a consumerist civilization, what it’s like to move to another country at a tender age, what the real end of civilization might look like (apart from over-dramatized theatrical portrayals), and how we connect meaningfully with one another.

The Chicago Tribune described it as an “original turducken of a novel.” Having reviewed it for Booklist, I found it difficult to put everything I wanted to say about the book into a 200-word star review without sacrificing the importance of getting the basic plot across.

Ling Ma’s achievement in blending the apocalyptic genre with deeper themes is not without precedent. What stands out is the detail in which consumer culture is accounted and inventoried, how certain brands of moisturizers are prized over others, especially when scavenged from abandoned homes, and the sheer amount of snacks any office floor can hold at any time.

The novel’s hero, Candace Chen, delights in going into work every day as New York slowly deteriorates around her. When no work is left to be done, she sets upon a routine of photographing the city’s desolate state and blogs them on the disappearing internet. Her experience as an office drone has conditioned such that it all seems a matter of course. Isn’t that refreshingly real in a genre full of extremes? In a typical life we work, we come home, we eat, we watch TV, we enjoy time off, we aspire, we live and then we die. We want Candace  to carry on through the inevitable end because she is us.

When you are checking out Severance from the library, be sure to pick up a few other end-of-times scenarios, like the following titles, linked to their Booklist reviews, that stick out in the genre for their verisimilitude:

The Cabin at the End of the World, by Paul Tremblay

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Thirst, by Benjamin Warner



About the Author:

Michael Ruzicka, Office Manager, was raised in suburban Los Angeles, received a BA in Creative Writing/Poetry at UC Santa Cruz, then moved to Birmingham, AL, where he spent five years owning an independent bookstore and earned an MLIS. He has brought his librarian skills to Vanderbilt’s Television News Archive, Battle Ground Academy, The Museum of Contemporary Art-Chicago, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Michael is very excited to be a part of Booklist and call Chicago his home.

2 Comments on "SEVERANCE: Not Just the End of the World As We Know It"

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  1. Keir Graff says:

    Great post, Michael! I really want to read this. And allow me to add a link to a list of post-apocalyptic works that I put together a decade ago. (Can it really have been that long??)

  2. Graff-City says:

    I have never been interested in novels. Ever since I was a child, I basically hated reading all kind of books, novels etc. and here I am a 21 year old guy, I still hate reading.

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