Severance: the quick pitches

Book vlogs aren’t far from the kinds of analysis you’ll end up doing in this class. When I asked you to make a pitch for your favorite video review of Severance, part of what I hoped you would do, as you watched and wrote, was pay attention to how these critics assembled and presented not just their summaries and evaluations of this novel but their sense of what it means, what kind of work it’s trying to do. So let’s see what you came up with.

Over half of you chose to write about the review from David Yoon, aka ThePoptimist. What did he get right? Most of you liked how much he covered in a mere 5 minutes: “consumerism, mindless repetition, and human group behavior packaged in a post-apocalyptic plot,” as Gabi put it, along with commentary on immigrant experience and nostalgia and a quick political analysis, borrowed from this web article, of vampire versus zombie motifs in contemporary US films. (That political analysis seems a little reductive to me: if Republicans see vampires as decadent, and so vampire films shoot up in popularity under Democratic presidents, that can’t really explain the overwhelming popular appeal of vampire sexuality, can it? Wouldn’t those representations be a little more negative?) Maitha notes that this review would have benefitted from more attention not just to capitalism but to the “exploitative monopoly” the US hold over global trade; Leanne thinks the unwittingly carries a kind of timeliness in the Trump Era. Mingu wonders if these political interpretations might be a little forced and whether the equation of capitalism and contagion might be sufficient. Personally, I would love to see something that can account a little better than this reviewer does for global trends: is the 2016 Korean zombie film Train to Busan about Korean politics, global economy, or class politics brought on by the confluence of Korean politics & a global economy?)

What else made this review compelling to so many of you? Jihun liked that it put an original spin on the material and did so while balancing just enough plot detail with the need to be succinct. Lubnah noted the high production quality ThePoptimist brings to his work, giving his reading added credibility. And if this video left some of you wanting more, it tended to be more commentary on generational, consumer, and cultural politics. What do “cozy apocalypse” and millennials have to do with each other? (As Linh notes, he puts the word “millennial” in the video title but never really explains why it matters to the novel.) Are the “zombies” supposed to be figures of workers or mindless consumers? Or is the point of what Maryam calls the “already lifeless repetitive cycles people have adapted to” supposed to be that capitalism asks us to work harder mostly so we can consume more, stuck in a loop?

Work culture (and generational ethos) received greater emphasis in other vlog reviews, such as this:

Cindy Pham, aka readwithcindy, only gives Ma’s novel 3 of 5 stars because she thinks the central insight — we are already zombies/monsters — is nothing new. She does, though, think that millennial readers in particular will identify with Candace’s work ethic overdrive. Siya, reviewing this review, thinks that the criticism may be “apt to some extent in a pre-pandemic world, the power of Severance is amplified significantly by our current context.” To Siya, Ma’s novel “illustrates with an almost terrifying accuracy how especially during global crises, we become even more entrenched in our identities as capitalistic pawns that grind away monotonously to no end.”

Though Pham spends some time wondering if there could have been more in Ma’s novel on the immigrant experience. (As Ayan notes, she identifies more with the generational emphasis than with Candace’s experience as the child of Chinese immigrants.) Other reviewers seem to have identified more than Pham did with the second-generation immigrant theme, and specifically with the connections drawn between Asian American experience and the burdens of cultural identity and work ethic:

Alex Simms, aka whatpageareyouon, referred to the “internal apocalypses” of Asian American identity. Centering this aspect of the novel accords with Smrithi’s sense that the novel’s “immigrant story” is “one of the most important reasons why one should read this book.” (Odmaa and Ryoji agreed. For Ryoji, Candace’s father’s story epitomizes the ways in which “working and its repetitive routines” are pathways to assimilation and “the only ways to suppress their alienation and loneliness.) Harper points to another reviewer, ClaireReadsBooks, who coins the term “cultural severance” to talk about the impact of assimilation on a second-generation immigrant like Candace.

As Harper notes, Claire prefers the flashback sequences because “they depicted anxieties of the modern world so well.” I wasn’t sure how conscious Claire was that she describes her summer as “fevered” or that she pined for a return to routines and rituals with the fall. Hmm…

Finally, noting the similarity between book vlogging and the kinds of assignments I’ve given you so far, Yaman noticed that the review by Wuthering Reader Reviews blends summary with original analysis, centering on the book’s coming-of-age story.

(The idea of adolescence — or young adulthood — as a contagious disorder is a these explored in a book no longer included on the syllabus: the graphic novel Black Hole, which I highly recommend.) The most relatable aspect of this review of Severance, however, at least to Yaman? That would be the reviewer’s “really relatable” confusion at times. Perhaps this suggests that even the best reviewer of a zombie novel is only, er, human, in the end.

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