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 Her exit from the city had been in an outdated model NYC taxi, which she describes as “nostalgia-yellow”: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.