cover image Severance


Ling Ma. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-0-374-26159-7

In this shrewd postapocalyptic debut, Ma imagines the end times in the world of late capitalism, marked by comforting, debilitating effects of nostalgia on its characters. The world has succumbed to Shen Fever, a “disease of remembering” that renders its victims zombie-like, doomed to “[mimic] old routines and gestures they must have inhabited for years.” The affected aren’t dangerous, just disturbingly similar to the living in their slavish devotion to habit. The narrator, Candace Chen, works at a specialty Manhattan book publisher, overseeing the printing of specialty Bibles, “the purest form of product packaging, the same content repackaged a million times over.” Most of the production takes place in China, the source of the fever and Candace’s birthplace. She narrates the swift spread of the fungal infection, which begins to ravage the city as she struggles, like many young New Yorkers, with whether she should pursue her artistic passion (photography) or commit to her corporate job. The novel alternates between Candace’s vivid descriptions of increasingly plague-ridden, deserted New York and her eventual pilgrimage to an Illinois shopping mall with a band of survivors, whose leader is a menacing former IT specialist. There are some suspense elements, but the novel’s strength lies in Ma’s accomplished handling of the walking dead conceit to reflect on what constitutes the good life. This is a clever and dextrous debut. [em](Aug.) [/em]