In search of lost time

At the end of the prologue to Ling Ma’s Severance, our narrator, Candace Chen, refugee from a deadly fungal outbreak that has devastated New York City and much of the rest of the planet, gives us a hint that she’s less than stable — as a narrator, at least. The Prologue, that is, has consisted mostly of other people’s memories and stories, and yet she narrated them as if they were her own.

“The truth is,” she confesses, “I was not there at the Beginning.”

Rather, she had fled New York after all major systems had collapsed, the last to abandon her post at a publishing house, where she oversaw outsourced, overseas productions of niche-market Bibles: old content in new wrappers. Her exit from the city had been in an outdated model NYC taxi, which she describes as “nostalgia-yellow”:

It was a Ford Crown Victoria, an older fleet model that cab companies had almost phased out. It looked, Bob [the self-appointed leader of their group] later told me, as if I’d driven a broken time machine right out of the eighties. It was my in. (7)

[page numbers in this post refer to the print edition; I’ll include ch refs for those reading the e-text]

Where did she hope this taxi time machine would take her, on a highway stretching into the West? What does this memory — refracted through the lens of another character, her experience finding some confirmation in his perspective on it — tell us about the narrative that will follow?

Shen Fever, the disorder that haunts this novel, tackles the memory first. “You could lose yourself this way, watching the most banal activities cycle through on an endless loop.” (This is one description of zombie-like behavior that reminds me of Colson Whitehead’s satirical NYC zombie novel, Zone One.) Memories are contagious, or at least reproductive: they beget more memories. “Shen Fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories” (ch 15; 160). How do these descriptions resonate or contrast with her mother’s Alzheimer’s? (ch 4; 63). What does it mean to “lose [yourself] in memory,” the way her father could? (ch 16; 188). And why, according to Bob, do “you have to engage your memory” in order to stalk effectively? (ch 15; 162). Candace’s narrative — a survivor’s tale — is structured largely as memory, flashback sequences with varying degrees of reach, from memories of the recent past (her relationship, her job in New York, the beginnings of the outbreak) to memories of her childhood as the only daughter of recent immigrants from China to the US, to narration of the postapocalyptic present, as she and a band of survivors make their way toward a mythical Facility in the West, where they will, perhaps, start again. This trip seems to be a retracing of the past: of Candace’s trip West as a child, of Bob’s journey to his hometown, of US settler colonialism. What is the gravitational pull that guides these movements? “[W]hat is the difference,” Candace asks, “between the fevered and us?” (ch 15; 160).

As Candace’s prologue makes clear, memories are both individual and collective. They consist of stories others tell us about ourselves and stories we create from those stories, ways to comfort ourselves about who we are, or are becoming, or have become. The Internet, which is a Bible of sorts for these Millennial characters, is “collective memory,” Candace affirms at the outset. The idea returns in a later chapter: “the internet almost wholly consists of the past. It is the place we go to to commune with the past” (ch. 9; 114). How do memories relate to other, less specific emotional structures and associations, as in Candace’s description of “Fuzhou Nighttime Feeling”: “It is excitement tinged by despair. It is despair heightened by glee. It is partly sexual in nature, though it precedes sexual knowledge. If [FNF] were a sound, it would be early/mid-nineties R&B. If it were a flavor, it would be the ice-cold Pepsi we drink as we turn down tiny alley-ways where little kids defecate wildly” (ch 7; 98). On one hand this sounds intensely personal and subjective; on the other it sounds primordial, tapping into lower layers of the unconscious. Are such associations universal? What happens when Ashley returns to her childhood home and becomes fevered? Although Evan questions her proposition, Candace asks if “nostalgia has something to do with it” (ch 12; 143).

“Nostalgia” was once a name for home-sickness, originally regarded as a mental disorder. In the context of a novel narrated by a second-generation immigrant, what insight can this offer? Does nostalgia spread, like a contagious disorder? Do parents give it to their children? Does it make us who we are? And are we nostalgic for the things and places we once knew — or the things and places others have told us about, like the country our parents came from, or the mall whose shops and hang-out spots gave them comfort during a difficult childhood? Does nostalgia leave us out (it’s over; we missed it) or give us room to feel to collective longings, belongings, or other behaviors? That “nostalgia-yellow” taxi cab was both Candace’s escape from New York and her entry to the group, precisely because it reminded them of the world they had left behind: “It was my in.”

For me that taxi cab is a telling detail. It opens up broader patterns that ripple through and structure the novel. What are the telling details/patterns you’ve noticed?

*post title is a nod to Contagion alum Tom Abi Samra’s paean to Proust and other long reads as an antidote to pandemic time.


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  1. One scene that really got me to think was in Chapter 11, page 65, Candance describes the recurring dreams she would have at Jonathan’s place. She refers to the bible and says “They know and I know that they are all selling the same thing, year after year, in different translations and with different packaging.” This sentence really reminded of one of the topics in our class discussions on the question “what is the difference between the fevered and us?”. Candance seems to be hectic of her work on reproducing the same product, but just with slight variations, just like how the fevered continue to be in this infinite loop, but sometimes done in a different order. So just like how the taxi cab is a telling detail to the story, I find the bible that keeps appearing throughout the book to be an important detail.
    After that, her dream focuses more on her interaction (or observation) with her relatives. This is the part where I was confused, reading the book, trying to think of what this passage was signifying about Candance. One interpretation could be the recurring theme of memory and relatives, but I am having a hard time thinking of how this passage plays out. If anyone has got any ideas or takes on what you consider this dream to be about, please let me know!

    • One of the things I’d like to talk about today is zombies as a figure of consumer behavior versus zombies as a figure of demeaned or exploited labor. Are these separate phenomena/trajectories within the novel?

  2. I think there is something interesting about the broader structure of the book. Flipping between the past and the present every few pages isn’t just good technique to engage the reader. It is also reflective of the book’s own emphasis on repetitive and iterative processes; how the ‘fevered’ are trapped in reliving a loop, and even the healthy had lives centered around repetition. (I also recommend the first episode of the TV Show “undone” for a vivid portrayal of similar feelings)

    Along the lines of what @Ryoji also points out, it is interesting to ponder the question of what is it really that makes the members of the group different from the fevered. And is Bob’s assumption that he is “putting them out of their misery” by killing them a valid one to make?

    I am looking forward to engaging more with these themes as I read the rest of the book.

    • I would love to talk more about narrative structure/disclosure here (via Candace’s flashbacks) and in Oedipus.

      And as for Bob: which is the worse fate? Summary execution or being taken to a dilapidated mall in the Chicago suburbs? (JK)

  3. “To eat at its restaurants. To drink at its bars. To shop at its stores. To pay its sales taxes. . . . It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”

    Whether ‘Severance’ is anti-capitalistic, anti-consumerist or not, it is ample with references to products and places that have characterized American consumerism. The fact that the ‘Facility’ is an abandoned shopping mall suggests to me that consumerism, at least in the context of the story, is what defines the United States. Within such a defined state, to what extent is each character (or each one us) complicit in that system? Are we provided with enough tools in our daily lives (perhaps within the context of our university education) or at times of crisis to grapple with our complicity?

    I was further reminded, in the context of 2020 United States of America, of the scenes of hoarding in the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak and the cases of looting that have occurred in the midst of the BLM movement, which has coincided with the pandemic crisis. While the hoardings and the lootings of this year are likely to have different social/psychological causes, capitalism and consumerism could certainly be the key motivators that tie those together.

    • I really like your connection between the novel’s themes of consumerism/consumption and discourse surrounding unemployment and social unrest over racial injustice during the Covid/BLM summer we’ve just witnessed. I do think it’s important to consider Ma’s specific invocation of global production & supply chains and labor (connected, in her own family’s history, to migration patterns as well). The link between the spread of a pathogen (and the conditions that enable a pandemic) and trade patterns is the fundamental subject of the Harrison chapter we read last week: “Merchants of death.” How would his insights apply here?

  4. Building on to what @Ayan and @Ryoji have commented, the theme of repetition, for the good or bad is very prominent in the book, and something that caught my eye in this regard was the use of the exact phrase: “I got up. I went to work in the morning” by the author around 7 times starting from chapter 14 (where Candace fast forwards her memories of living and working in NYC to 5 years). Peppered throughout the next few chapters, the repetition of this phrase, points cleverly to the repetitive nature of her working life at Spectra and how every workday seemed to start in the same way during the years she was working in the city.

    She also comes back to this phrase one final time at the end of the novel in the same lines @Mingu quoted: “To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”, commenting on this repetitive routine of life in cities, which while could be easily read as bad (and well compared to the fever as @Ryoji and @Ayan bring up), but also is many times comforting as we see Candace at multiple points during the novel getting lost watching the rhythms of even the fevered, such as the saleslady folding clothes, and even doubting if she should stop “working” at Spectra after her contract was over.

    I look forward to discussing further this two-sided coin of repetition at some point during our class.

    • I like that you’re pinpointing repetitive language/form in the novel and the behaviors she’s describing too, in our patterns of work and leisure (consumption). Others in their Power Paragraphs connected this to our own doubling-down on “remote work” under Covid — something for us to discuss for sure!

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