Ling Ma, 2018

the forty-first book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Will Treece and Amanda Hickok

The visitor recommendation series sputters back to life, or at least twitches in mid-coma, with Severance, a book that I added to my reading list in response to the results of my poll earlier this year, then moved to the front of the queue on the recommen­dation of a friend, then turned into an immediate action item when one of my sophomores selected it as his independent reading book—​I didn’t want to have the book spoiled by a paper I’d be obligated to read!

As it turned out, this was probably as appropriate a time as any to read this book, since it’s about a global pandemic.  Sort of.  This is not a serious entry in the fiction of epidemiology: the premise is that the disease in question (spread not person to person but by fungal spores drifting around in the air) turns people into diminished versions of themselves who semi-consciously act out the routines of their lives in continuous loops.  A housewife might serve empty plates to her husband and children, who lick them and hand them back to her, world without end.  A couch potato might sit in front of a dead TV, clicking the remote every ten seconds, for days on end until he starves.  In fairly short order everyone on the planet is infected except for the protagonist and a small group of other survivors who, like her, seem to be inexplicably resistant to the spores—​at least temporarily.  So, yeah.  This is a zombie apocalypse book.  The gimmick is that it’s interwoven with the sort of “traditional immigration novel” the author says she was encouraged to write in her MFA program, and these semi-autobiographical chapters would indeed fit seamlessly into a standard multicultural fiction syllabus.  You would think that this is the sort of thing I would be into: looking at my list of patterns, I see that Severance fits Patterns 24, 33, and especially 38.  And yet I have to confess that it left me pretty cold.  I did like the sequence toward the end when, after bouncing back and forth between post-apocalypse and pre-apocalypse, the novel finally depicts the window in between, as civilization steadily crumbles.  But the protagonist’s story—​her parents’ struggles to adapt to life in the U.S., her visits with relatives back in Fujian, her time in New York as an educated twentysomething in the ’00s, hooking up with hipsters and working in a publishing house—​just didn’t interest me all that much, and in fact I vaguely disliked the protagonist herself.  And while I appreciate the attempt to draw some themes out of the zombie stuff—​hey, like, aren’t we all zombies, kinda? don’t we all spend a lot of our lives kinda looping through mindless routines?—​I didn’t come away from the novel particularly impressed by its profundity.  But who knows?  Maybe when I read that paper next month it’ll change my mind!

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