Ling Ma must have precognitive talents to produce a plague novel so eerily similar to the pandemic reality of 2020. Published two years before the Coronavirus, Severance sketches a world in which people wear personalized masks to fend off a fever that dooms victims to robotic, repetitive behavior. Civilization crumbles as the internet disperses medical misinformation, people are forced to work from home, streets are in chaos, and Amazon deliveries slow to a trickle. Sound familiar?
Of course, modern fiction is full of apocalypse stories. This one is a refreshing allegory paralleling that of Brigham Young’s followers and their trek to Salt Lake Valley, and the narrator’s own journey from China to New York City, where she becomes a project coordinator for a publishing company. As the infection takes over, Candace Chen joins a group of refugees fleeing to Chicago. Along the way, we learn of her parents’ own migration from China to the United States, and their struggles to adjust to an alien culture.
This should have been a singular and impressive first novel for Ling Ma. She possesses the narrative command and literary skills of an excellent writer. Unfortunately, she has chosen to mimic the weaknesses of so many poor ones: trashing her own work with graphic sex scenes and offensive language that add nothing to the story, only drag it down into the gutter of commonality. I hope her next effort will reflect a more mature approach. She has a great deal to offer.