Severance was a very capital-L Literary book, and not in a good way.
I’m usually wary of post-apocalyptic stories because to me, they privilege commentary over character, the abstract over the actual. And as a reader primarily invested in character, I just can’t really abide by that. (I’ve read very few post-apocalyptic novels so take my opinion with a grain of salt.)
Preface aside, I thought I’d give Severance a chance because I felt like reading it and the reviews didn’t seem too bad. And lo and behold, everything I disliked about it had exactly to do with its privileging of commentary over character. It felt like Ma was force-feeding me the commentary she was so desperately trying to make with the disease that spurs her novel’s apocalypse. It was almost as if I could pinpoint exactly what certain Literary passages were supposed to be about: here is the passage about Capitalism and Labour and, oh, here’s the one about Consumerism and Materialism. It made me roll my eyes. Like, yes, I get it. Society is materialistic. I didn’t need to read about a post-apocalyptic world to know that.
Here are some examples of what I mean:
“I looked at her eyes, upside down. They were open but unfocused. They didn’t register me. The pupils didn’t move. The closest approximation for this gaze is when someone is looking at their computer screen, or checking their phone.”
comparing those affected by an epidemic—one that basically makes people routine-obsessed zombies—to humans’ use of technology ? wow what a groundbreaking comparison, i’ve definitely never heard that before… honestly though, what irritates me about passages like these is that they try so hard to make explicit comparisons that aren’t just on-the-nose, but also extremely tired and overdone.
“Memories beget memories. Shen Fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories. But what is the difference between the fevered and us? Because I remember too, I remember perfectly. My memories replay, unprompted, on repeat. And our days, like theirs, continue in an infinite loop. We drive, we sleep, we drive some more.”
time and again, passages like these basically shove the book’s commentary down your throat. i am an active reader, you know. i can make these parallels myself, no need to spell it out for me.
“Such a sound is mesmerizing. It comes into your body. Your breath syncs up with its rhythm. You can feel cells struggling, breaking down, or otherwise proliferating with overcompensating energy, engaging in mitosis and dividing and dividing. . . . The pins and needles pulsated, squeezed me like a fist, performed the Heimlich, issued lashings of pain, masticated me, palpitated me, pummeling me with crashing waves of nausea.”
that’s all well and good but what the hell is this supposed to mean? i don’t mean what do the sentences mean, but what does a passage like this mean in the larger scheme of the story? when i say this book was extremely Literary, passages like these are what i mean—paragraphs that are so abstract and grandiose that it feels like the author writes them just because they can rather than to actually contribute anything substantial to the story.
There were some passages I enjoyed, but those were few and far between. For example,
“Leisure, the problem with the modern condition was the dearth of leisure. And finally, it took a force of nature to interrupt our routines. We just wanted to hit the rest button. We just wanted to feel flush with time to do things of not quantifiable value, our hopeful side pursuits like writing or drawing or something, something other than what we did for money. And even if we didn’t get around to it on that day, our free day, maybe it was enough just to feel the possibility that we could if we wanted to.”
More than anything, it just didn’t feel like Ma’s take on a post-apocalyptic world was at all different from one like, say, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One: an epidemic begins, those affected by it are stuck repeating their old routines ad infinitum, those unaffected are subject to some hierarchy, to some ruling figure who is more often than not tyrannical for no discernible reason. I appreciate that her novel incorporated Candace’s bicultural experiences as an immigrant from China, but I also felt like the way she executed that narrative made the novel feel like a bunch of disparate parts rather than a cohesive whole.
To put it simply, Severance was a novel that was literary in all the ways that I dislike. Needless to say, I didn’t really enjoy this one.