The entire office is gathered together for an announcement from management regarding new workplace protocols. The CEO tells the staffers, “we take your health very seriously” and assures them that “we are working in accordance with the New York State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” As the meeting concludes, the staffers circulate a “Shen Fever FAQ” page regarding the symptoms of a new epidemic — “Shen Fever,” they call it, for its association with Shenzhen, China. A subsequent email will inform them that it is company policy to wear N95 masks in the office.
So begins, more or less, Ling Ma’s debut novel, “Severance.” It’s tempting to fixate on the prescience of this dystopian novel. Published in 2018, its resemblance to our times is uncanny. A virus has emerged from southeast China and gradually becomes a devastating pandemic. Its final-stage symptoms are that the “fevered” repeat routines and habits to the exclusion of their own sustenance — zombielike, but not in a menacing way, horrifying, but only for those of us troubled by existentialism and whatnot. Rumors swirl about the origins and spread of Shen Fever. Jonathan, erstwhile lover of our protagonist Candace Chen, conjectures that it’s worse in China than reported: “The state media in China controls the optics of this, so we don’t know the real statistics. Maybe they don’t want to incite mass panic, but I’ll bet it’s also because they don’t want foreign investors to pull out of their economy. They need to save face.”
“Hashtag: relatable,” as one of Ma’s characters might say.
“Severance” unfolds on two alternating narrative timelines that are divided by the moment when Candace finally decamps New York City: The “End” of Candace’s New York life in the last moments of organized civilization, and the “Beginning” of her life with a group of scavengers looking for a safe place to settle down and start over. In this way, despite my unsettling experience of reading the novel in the third week of National Quarantine Times 2020, it’s a fairly conventional apocalyptic conceit. And as such the novel comes with a voice suited to Young Adult fiction that can be a little mawkish during the first frames.
But that YA voice gives way to some serious meditations on work — meditations that are as timely in our pandemic moment as the plot itself. In the last third or so of the book’s “End” storyline in New York City, Candace is increasingly fixated on her job at a publishing company. She has argued about this job with Jonathan: He wants to leave the city and be a free spirit, but she finds more freedom in the security of waged work. So now in these waning moments, Jonathan long gone, Candace continues to show up at her office in a midtown high rise. Even though there is no further work to be done. Even though all of her coworkers have either become “fevered” or fled the city.
One of those last mornings, the elevator stops on the way to her office suite on the 32nd floor, and for a panicky moment she wonders if it will fall, if anyone is watching the security camera, if there’s anyone left to respond to the emergency-call button. Candace escapes and calls 911 to inform them of the dangerous elevator. After several rings, a beleaguered operator finally answers. She asks Candace why she is in a midtown office building in the first place — the city has emptied out, the subway lines have flooded, the infrastructure has been laid bare. “I have a contract that stipulates I have to work in the office until a certain date,” Candace replies.
Why does Candace keep going to work? Could she really be so disciplined by a piece of paper, as she tells the 911 operator? Her co-workers, the ones who haven’t suffered Shen Fever’s fatal loss of consciousness, have skipped town for healthier climes, to be with loved ones, to get high, to find life where it’s not held in “balance” with work. Is Candace an automaton? Is she, like the “fevered,” simply a hostage to habit?
I feel as though Candace might be addicted to work — or anyway, to the idea of her work.
During her last days in the city, she is as tied to her office suite as ever. In one poignant passage, she recalls a moment months before when she had tried to quit the job. Her boss says that she has performed very well in her year with the company, but cautioned her against striking out on her own: “You’re young,” he tells her. “You’re maybe under the impression that everyone gets to do what they want for a living.”
Among all of the book’s unsettling passages to read during quarantine, this one cuts deepest.
My career as a professor at a small liberal arts college is the kind of rewarding work that is the middle-class ideal. I was lucky as hell to have this work before the pandemic, often feeling that I won the lottery to have a position I don’t deserve. And I’m privileged as hell to have this work now, as the pandemic has created an unbelievable acceleration in unemployment and prompts all kinds of questions about what the economy and our individual working lives will look like when this pandemic recedes. Perhaps because of my privileged work, perhaps owing to a reading list of utopian manifestos, perhaps because of a certain millennial orientation, I find myself defensive of Candace’s idea that she should be able to do what she wants for a living — and frightful that a pandemic is primed to disrupt that idea of work.
I also find myself thinking about work a lot lately. My charmed work has been strained in the last month by a migration to online learning that nobody asked for, that few in our tight learning community find fulfilling or effective. By a balancing act of working-from-home and full-time childcare and homeschooling that leaves everyone feeling anxious and insufficient. By uncertainties about what higher learning will mean after this foray into cyberspace after the economy stabilizes.
This is what I find arresting about that visit Candace has with her boss, when he confronts her with her own silent assumption that “everyone gets to do what they want for a living.” What will work look like for me after COVID-19? What will it look like for anyone in the U.S.? These are the fears revealed by Ma’s apocalyptic pandemic — far more than the public health angle, in fact. Selfishly, I wonder: If there’s a sea change in store for us regarding the way that we work, will I continue to get to do what I want for a living? And on my own terms? Will anybody? And why do I keep thinking about life in terms of “a living”? Perhaps the pandemic will usher in a new era when we can all simply do what we want?
There are plenty of think-pieces out there extolling the revolutionary potential of our present crises. The fall of capitalism. Or at least the overdue arrival of Medicare for All. Or, who knows, maybe fascism. I thought I was interested in these narratives of disruption and transformation. But “Severance” has exposed me, has shown me that my worries are more personal and immediate. A few weeks ago, I would have cheered the idea of a post-work future. But now, confronting our uncertainty and called out by Candace’s boss, I find myself anxious and ambivalent thinking about the potential loss of work. In our “Beginning” after the pandemic, will there be room for meaningful work? Or will we be free to — forced to? — find meaning outside of work? And what will be work’s relation to a meaningful life?
Wesley Beal is an associate professor of English at Lyon College.