Humans of Late Capitalism is an Instagram account documenting the absurdities of late capitalism around the world. The posts are an uncanny reflection of the uncaring world we inhabit, producing both horror and humour. Ling Ma’s 2018 novel, Severance, has a similar premise, dissecting the humans of late capitalism, albeit in the form of apocalyptic fiction.

It chronicles the life of Candace Chen, a production assistant forced to leave her beloved New York City as a fungal pandemic from China sets off the apocalypse. She later joins a group of survivors as they travel to Illinois to hide out in a mall. The year is 2011, but it might as well be 2020.

“If the End was Nature’s way of punishing us so that we might once again know our place, then yes, we knew it. If it was at all unclear before, it was not now,” Candace says in the opening. We are now waist deep in “unprecedented times”, our own apocalypse. The Covid crisis has exposed the fragility of our global village.

In record time, it has induced a reckoning with culture and Culture, forcing us to re-evaluate our fundamental ways of living. The world seems to have woken up to the fact that we cannot go on like this.

Severance is an indictment of “this”, an allegory of modern dystopia. What sets it apart is its patchwork of seemingly disparate themes – an astute treatment of work culture and mourning familiarity. Ma weaves in a critique of the burnout generation, toxic workplaces, and consumerist society with a protagonist whose identity hinges on work. Even as Candace remains miserable in her daily slog, she clings to it desperately: “It was like burrowing underground, and the deeper I burrowed the warmer it became, snuffing out any worries and anxieties.”

Memories and trauma

Candace’s obsession with work stems from a place of uncertainty and loss. She is a naive drifter who guilts herself into corporate slavery. She romanticises city life, trying to reassure herself: “To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”

Since she is smart as a whip, her offbeat quips and unique sense of humour slice through the drudgery. Slowly chipping away at her withdrawn exterior, Ma brings forth a woman whose vulnerability feels even more intimate and earnest.

Certain narrative strands may indeed be auto-fiction, since the author herself is a Chinese immigrant who had the same job of Bible production. Yet, Severance is much more than the story of Candace’s severance from New York because of Shen Fever. It is equally concerned with her family’s severance from their native Fuzhou and the subsequent severance of her self-identity.

Ma’s craft lies in the way she weaves these two narratives around each other. And they find their intersection at Candace’s toxic relationship with her job.

It manifests from the Chen family’s shared trauma of losing what is familiar. For her father, it’s leaving home in search for a better life. For her mother, it’s losing her memories out of old age. For Candace, work is a source of transcendental numbing and ultimately, the very core of her identity.

When the fever hits, she is offered a bonus and refuses to leave New York even as it collapses around her, coping the only way she knows how: “I got up. I went to work in the morning.” Such moments deeply resonate with modern forms of dysfunctional coping, like the pressure to be productive under lockdown.

Capitalism and the pandemic

Shen Fever (the pandemic in the novel) feels both like an analogy and a warning. Its presentation is much like the mechanical reproduction of labor that sustains capitalism. The fevered – as the characters call the infected – are doomed to repeatedly perform their everyday routines to oblivion. Or until the group puts them out of their misery with a quick bullet to the head. Ma reminds us to fix our own dysfunctional patterns or be doomed to repeat them.

The interspersing of past and present meticulously unravels the beginning of the end through Candace’s journey. Ma’s writing style is offhandedly casual, yet punctuated with poignancy. There’s no single catastrophe, as her prose builds compounding trauma and creeping ruination.

By juxtaposing the pre-Shen fever and the post-Shen fever eras, she jars the reader while providing time to revel in spacious, wistful reminiscing. Memory simultaneously shapes, and is, the source of conflict. Present Candace’s actions acquire newfound meaning with the conflicts slowly teased out of Candace and her relationship with her parents.

Ma permeates Candace’s demeanour with a disquieting sense of isolation, which she ironically alleviates through skirmishes with nostalgia. Perhaps this explains her love for objects. The twenty-something scampers around New York in her mother’s vintage dresses. Her survivor’s crew goes on communal stalks, foraging everything from food to board games from the homes they come across. Collecting these memory objects has near-religious value: “I would get lost in the taking of inventory, with the categorising and gathering, the packing of everything into space-efficient arrangements in the same boxes.”

If anything is amiss here, it is the flatness of the supporting cast. Candace and her family drive the narrative, while the rest of the characters are somewhat forgettable, save for her ex-boyfriend, Jonathan. He is a breath of fresh air and serves as an effective foil to her panicky disposition. From the survivor’s crew, Bob as the megalomaniac crew leader feels like an archetype at times. His character arc is a tad predictable, and as a result, the ending feels a bit rushed.

Severance breathes life into a formulaic genre, couched in prose that rolls off the tongue. With its engaging and complex treatment of hard-hitting themes, it’s almost hard to believe this is Ma’s first novel. It was also the recipient of the prestigious Kirkus Award in 2018. With this moving debut, Ma seems to say that remembering is the pharmakon.