Overtime in End Times

Severance: A Novel BY Ling Ma. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 304 pages. $26.

Ling Ma’s debut novel, Severance, toggles between a novel about work, in which its protagonist carries out soul-sucking tasks to make more and more money (coerced by the structural requirements of capitalism), and a novel about a cult, in which its protagonist joins a group of zealots (coerced by the opportunity to live in a protective, if creepy, community). Both require a certain amount of women’s work (her superiors are always men) and water-cooler talk—the transition between the genres is smooth. The cult leader, Bob,is a “power-hungry IT specialist.” His arm is in a sling from “a botched carpal tunnel surgery.” Kmart realism has here taken on a fanatical glare, as if all the flickering bulbs in the supermarket aisle have been upgraded with halogen lighting. It’s worth noting that the breakout female novelists of the past three years—R. O. Kwon, Alexandra Kleeman, Emma Cline—are drawn to cults. It’s a literary device that takes their bored, disenfranchised girls out of the market economy and greases the wheel for plots that turn on the betrayal of disenfranchised unemployed people by other unemployed people.

Candace Chen, the protagonist of Severance—a first-generation American, orphan, and workaholic in 2006—coordinates the production of specialty Bibles, outsourcing the labor on the cheap from an office the size of a “closet” in Manhattan. Her job is to produce a “new” edition at the cheapest price point: “In order to hit the publisher’s target cost, substitutions had been made. The cover was made of leatherlike polyurethane instead of leather. The book block edges boasted copper-hued spray edge, duller compared to the more expensive gilding. The ribbon markers were made of sateen instead of silk.” Her boyfriend makes money spanking businessmen, and her roommate commutes to New Jersey every day. She got her job—five years before—by sleeping with “an economist and author of You’re Not the Boss of Me: Labor Values and Work Ethic Among America’s Millennial Youth.

Ma is satiric about the workplace, in a way that’s less snobbish than Nell Zink but just as funny and imaginative. “We were brand strategists and property lawyers and human resources specialists and personal finance consultants,” she explains. “We didn’t know how to do anything so we Googled everything.” They Googled “how to build a fire,” “how to shoot a gun,” Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They “Googled is there a god, clicked I’m Feeling Lucky, and were directed to a suicide hotline site.” The line is dead.

Why are the phone lines down? Ah, yes, the zombie apocalypse. It’s actually Shen Fever, an infection “transmitted by breathing in fungal spores.” I waited this far into the review to tell you, because I think you should read the book anyway. Candace—prudent, shy, demoralized, and pregnant—ends up being held prisoner by a nine-person group led by the menacing Bob. It’s a cult, and not a ragtag group of survivalists, because they have rituals, and no one is allowed to leave. But who can blame Candace? The internet has fallen into a sinkhole. It’s not a stretch to imagine this scenario as utopic, and initially it is. The cult members stay up late drinking and exchanging theories: “Lurking in our limited gene pools may swim metastatic brain tumors and every type of depression and recessed cystic fibrosis, but also high IQs and proficiencies with Romance languages.”

The group is optimistic about following Bob’s lead and finding refuge in Chicago. “Chicago is the most American of American cities,” says a member of the cult. “It’s actually Needling, Bob said. Needling, Illinois. It’s right outside Chicago.” There are rumblings of dissent: “I am not living in the suburbs, Janelle announced.” But they—millennial picky-eater personality types—all eventually acquiesce to groupthink, branding themselves with lightning bolts. “Because it was said Crazy Horse divined that he would be successful in war only if he never stopped to gather the spoils of battle, and to remind himself of this, he tattooed lightning bolts behind his horses’ ears.” Ma doesn’t miss an opportunity to conflate cult life with the cubicle; when the plague first starts, companies try to show their good will by putting their logos on face masks, as they might on coffee cups during Pride Week.

All the best metaphors in the book are cleverly crafted harbingers. Businesses do nothing to stop the spread of the disease—they refuse to shut down. Candace watches from a midtown office building as “fern-like ghetto palms” sprout in midtown. She Googles it. “Known by their scientific name, Ailanthus altissima, which translates to ‘tree of heaven,’ but informally called ‘tree of hell.’ They are deciduous suckering plants that originated in China, were cultivated in European gardens during the chinoiserie trend before gardeners became wise to their foul-smelling odors, and were introduced to America in the late 1700s.” Ma’s messaging isn’t subtle, but it’s amusing: Cheap products shipped from China started this fungal infection. What seemed like a capitalist dream (the cheapest Bible possible) becomes a plague of biblical proportion. (Her dexterity in joking about capitalism rivals the skill of the great Richard Powers, who once imagined a company selling a product to cure a disease it created.)

There’s never any doubt that the ragtag gang’s utopic vision will give way to society’s inherent structural problems. (Sure enough: “The men hunted, and the women gathered.”) But someone like Candace, who literally deals in Bibles—especially a shifty Bible business—should be prepared for the Old Testament: a world of plagues, where women get stoned to death, and have to give birth outside of hospitals, surrounded by animals (zombie people, in this case). It comes as no surprise that Bob eventually locks Candace in a L’Occitane store in an abandoned shopping mall.

There’s something so unimaginative and depressing and right about this book ending in a mall. It’s as creepy as Candace staying at work for months after the plague hits. It left me wistful for David Markson, who had his protagonist—the last woman on earth—burning paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art to stay warm. At least you could tell she’d really given up.

Kaitlin Phillips is a writer living in Manhattan.