CHICAGO — About seven years ago, when writer Ling Ma was a fact checker in the Chicago office of Playboy, as work at the magazine began drying up and layoffs loomed, she started writing a novel. Right there, while sitting at her desk, watching her coworkers called into an office then leave the building hours later with severance packages and boxes of personal items. “There were always rumors of moving the magazine to Los Angeles, but gradually. Chicago fell apart in slow motion. They encouraged people to retire early, then they cut the maximum number of vacation days you could roll over to the next year — stuff like that. Of course I knew I would be laid off. There was this definite sense of foreboding.”
So she wrote, imagined her firing, her end — and the end.
As in, THE END.
As she recalled this, she was curled on her couch in her apartment on the North Side. Behind her right shoulder was a shelf, and on it rested a Bible alongside “The Zombie Survival Guide” and “The World Without Us,” Alan Weisman’s acclaimed 2007 consideration of the planet after mankind collapses. Each of these books factored into what she wrote in those last days at Playboy’s Chicago office.
“But why did I start?” she asked dryly.
“I started writing because I was ... sick of it all? Not of Playboy the company so much as having a job — a desk job. I was sick of seeing the same people day in, day out. I was sick of watching them eat their desk salads. I felt gleeful at the thought of unemployment and stretches of free time — it’s what every writer wants. But I was angry, too. There’s something angsty about going through a routine you know is going to end.” In a recent essay for Buzzfeed about her time at Playboy, she described “the daily drip of passive-aggressive jabs, the unnecessarily personal remarks, the pointed, belittling questions interrupting our workflow — all under the thin guise of professionalism ... “
In the end, she started a novel called “Severance”; and finished several years later, selling it to Farrar, Straus and Giroux while still enrolled in the MFA writing program at Cornell University. Though it arrived last summer, it’s had a steady world-of-mouth burn, turning up last month on many best-books-of-2018 lists and landing a generous piece in the New Yorker. It’s also not the thinly-veiled tell-all you expect.
It’s an apocalypse novel. Set in the publishing world.
“If you told me years ago my first book would be this sort of apocalypse thing with zombies, I would have said ‘Are you kidding? That’s so over.’ Yet ... In retrospect, when I look at some of the (earlier fiction) I wrote, I often start from a place of fantasy, and with this? It is a fantasy. It’s just that the fantasy is, ‘What if I didn’t have to work anymore? How could I make that come about? And so, how can I collapse the capitalist system?’”
She said the book has already attracted the attention of a major cable network, though you likely guessed that (it’s too early for offer more detail). Less obvious is how fresh “Severance” reads, how thoroughly Ma, without anticipating it, remade the inevitable zombie apocalypse into a recognizable picture of late capitalism and lonesomeness. Even less obvious is how the book, written as Ma kept an eye on the Occupy movement and suffered the stings of the Great Recession, is a visionary zombie book, one so prescient it’s less curious about the dead than immigration, globalization and inequality.
Ma said that at Cornell she felt pressured to write a traditional immigration novel, but she pushed back. “I resented that expectation. I had been told, even by a faculty member, to write about ‘where you come from’ and I was like (expletive). I felt there was this cultural expectation to write about your otherness — to explain yourself. I had grown up mostly in white America and often got asked where I came from. Writing an immigration novel was answering and I wasn’t interested. I mean, the apocalypse novel is full of tropes, and so is the immigration novel.”
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“Severance” then tells the story of Candace Chen, who works for a book-production company in New York, where she is in charge of Bibles. Candace is capable, unsentimental, quiet, but, as Ma writes, “unsavvy in some fundamental, uncomfortable way” that has kept her from seeming vital. Candace is alone, lacks an anchor, a feeling of belonging to a home or friends. She came to the United States as a child, emigrating from China; her mother, an accountant, followed her economist husband to Utah. When the end comes, it arrives from China, in the form of “Shen Fever,” a fungal infection that, before it kills, sends its victims into a zombie-like trance of familiar routines, ad infinitum.
Candace returns to work, co-workers drop away and stop coming in, cubicles stay empty. But Fashion Week goes on. Tourists still clog Times Square. The apocalypse is not a hard stop, rather it’s a slow creep. Indeed, even as there are fewer people to sell anything to, Candace is offered more money to stay at the company, to keep up corporate appearances. Ma said she wanted “that End to look vague, how you don’t know an apocalypse is happening, how it’s anti-climatic, because when you think of yourself or catastrophic events, it’s hard to really see a before and after.” So the book alternates among Candace’s life before the fever, Candace’s office job during the outbreak and, after, Candace with a small group of survivors headed towards Chicago.
With that last hell, perhaps as a final act of revenge against Cubicle Life, Ma is especially cruel. Making their way from Manhattan to a mall in the Chicago suburbs is not the usual assortment of zombie-movie teenagers, waitresses, police officers and single dads. Instead, at the End, mankind’s last stand is represented by a band of (shudder) marketing flacks, HR executives, lawyers and IT professionals.
Truly — who is more fortunate, the dead or the living?
Ma said Kafka and his grim diaries — “how he is interested in power, how you can’t see power even when it’s prevalent everywhere, and how he worked at an insurance firm by day but was writing at night” — became a major influence on “Severance.” Though as predictable as it may be to read the details of an author’s life into their fiction, the book is remarkably autobiographical: Ma, who is 35, came to the United States from China as a child; she grew up in Utah, Nebraska and Kansas, her father taught economics, her mother is an accountant. After attending the University of Chicago, she worked for a book-production firm in Chicago, but was transferred to the New York office, where she oversaw the Bible. She returned eventually to Chicago, and now teaches writing at UC.
On a recent afternoon, even her neighborhood felt touched with a dystopian chill, a stillness. Inside, Ma appeared cocooned in books, happy to leave it at that. She was not that thrilled to be written about, and sounded unsettled at the attention that the book attracted. Holding her front door open, waiting for a journalist to leave, she said:
“I haven’t said this a lot because women are supposed to be grateful for attention, they’re not supposed to let on to any ambivalent feelings at all, but it is discomforting. When you publish, there is this feeling that you are seen, at last, but you are never really seen. You get this wall of feedback, and it’s a distorted image you don’t recognize.
“I mean, I always figured I would write a novel,” she said. “I just figured I would write it when I was 50 and had stuff to write about. Turned out, I did have stuff to write about.”