Severance: Literary critics loved this novel.

There’s a herd instinct among literary critics, and it’s nowhere more evident than in their reception for Ling Ma‘s 2018 debut novel, Severance. Check out the reviews, and you keep coming across adjectives like “standout,” “masterful,” “compelling,” “exquisite,” and “astounding.” And the list of awards and “best of” lists on which it appears is staggeringly long. The book is very, very good—gorgeously written—but it’s hard to understand why so many mainstream literary critics would gush over it so extravagantly.

Severance is best characterized as science fiction. The novel relates the experience of one young woman as a devastating pandemic ends civilization as we know it. Written and published more than a year before COVID-19 was unleashed on the world, the Shen Fever fungal infection Ma portrays is a very different animal from the virus now plaguing us. And because it doesn’t come across as credible, the epidemic seems to be merely a literary device to circumscribe the world in which the protagonist, Candace Chen, must live.

Severance by Ling Ma (2018) 297 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)

Ma explores many themes in Severance as well as epidemic disease: immigration, consumerism, globalized capitalism, office culture, family dynamics, and the slacker culture of young Millennials. She writes with sharp wit about all these things. And it hangs together because Ma is a gifted storyteller. And, yes I understand that literary critics loved this novel—readers with far finer sensibilities than mine. But in the end it’s hard to see what the point of it all is. Ma ranges over so many disparate subplots that, to grab a clichéd witticism out of context, there’s no there there.

For further reading

Other authors have mined the subject of life after an apocalypse. One of the most successful of them is Emily St. John Mandel, whose novel Station Eleven is fast becoming considered a classic. I reviewed it at Life on Earth after the apocalypse.

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