Severance is one of those stories that is hard to nail down. It's largely post-apocalyptic, yet it has a very contemporary feel to it. It's dark and yet it's darkly comic. It's painted as a straight-forward dystopian tale, yet it may be an allegory for the way we live. It's meandering while focused. It's terrifying, it's sleep inducing. It's great and it's really not all that good.
For all the positive things I can say about this novel, I think the reason I'm also ambivalent toward it is due to the unevenness of the book. Perhaps there is some filler where there should have been more character development. I didn't really feel invested in these characters, and some of them were little more than tropes. When dealing with characters who are facing life and death, it's important for a reader to believe in what's at stake. For the most part, I didn't. The purpose of these characters was largely to move the plot forward.
Where the novel succeeds, however, is in its world building and its larger story. The parallels that are drawn between the capitalist world of Candance's past with that of her plague-infested present are brilliant. The pandemic that sweeps the world in Severance causes its victims to repeat menial tasks without thought. This continues until they finally expire. Thus an avid reader may turn the pages of her favorite book without reading a word for days. A taxi driver may drive his same route, even picking up passengers, but all without a thought or care, day and night, until his body just gives out. And that's where this story wonderfully elicits questions of how allegorical this whole story is.
My opinion of this slim novel swayed throughout. I really liked parts of it—thought it was brilliant at times. Other parts were just a bit too unsophisticated. In the end, I guess I feel so-so about it. It certainly didn't help that the final third of this novel came across as rushed and formulaic. This was the part of the story where I felt any decent author of dystopian fiction could've stepped in and done an equally commendable job. It's an ending that should satisfy readers of the genre looking for a piece of action that is familiar, but as a reader looking for something original or thought-provoking, I felt it was a let down.
Severance is an easy read and one that I would recommend to readers of dystopian fiction. Other readers could probably adopt a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward this one and be fine.
“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.” “The Hollow Men” -T.S. Eliot
Severance by Ling Ma is an unusual but elegant combination of immigration story and post-apocalyptic drama. Thematically, it addresses the human desire for belonging that is derailed by mistrust and urban alienation. It also makes a statement about our modern tendency to adhere compulsively to conformity despite conflicting ideals of individuality and personal freedom. Ling Ma’s protagonist, Candace Chen, is a new transplant to New York City after having lost both of her parents. The rest of her family lives in China, so she has no real connections upon her arrival. At first, she aimlessly wanders the city taking photographs that even she admits are unoriginal. Eventually, she falls into a job working in an international book printing office. Candace finds herself caught in an endless loop of routine-with mostly superficial friendships and little hope for change or advancement. She even clings to her daily rituals as the world succumbs slowly to an epidemic that culminates in the breakdown of civilization. The sickness, called Shen Fever, causes the infected (“the Fevered”) to act like robotic zombies, engaging in rote motions until they inevitably die from neglect of their basic needs. The plague spreads insidiously, creeping over the globe with no discernable reason as to why some people fall ill while others remain immune. Candace reluctantly leaves the city only when pressured by the lack of services and a secret she can no longer contain. She is welcomed into a group of survivors in search of a place to settle and begin a new life. Their dogmatic leader enforces order with evangelical zeal and may have ulterior motives. The novel alternates between Candace’s experience as a child new to America, her life in NY, and her experience dealing with the aftermath of the catastrophe. Severance is a quick but addictive read- unique and thought-provoking. What does it take to wake us up out of our comfort zones and propel us into taking action when these zones are no longer inhabitable? Is the security of being accepted and cared for worth the cost of independence? Ling Ma’s debut novel is funny but disturbing, refreshing but uncomfortably familiar. Definitely a new author worth recommending and watching for her future efforts.
Have I mentioned that I hate reviewing anthologies? Collections of stories by the same author are easier to review than ones with stories by many authors, but I’d still rather review individual novels, novellas, and short stories.
Anyway, this made it onto my TBR after I finished Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and went hunting for similar books. The Ginza Ghost starts with an introduction about Osaka and his stories. Like Shimada, Osaka was an author of honkaku (orthodox) mysteries. He was born in 1912 and began prolifically publishing mystery stories starting in 1932. Unfortunately, this was a time when honkaku mysteries were looked at unfavorably in Japan, and so he eventually had to switch to comedy and spy stories. In 1943 he was drafted, and he died of disease sometime in 1945.
The collection includes twelve stories organized semi-chronologically by publication date. I’m not sure why there were a few exceptions mixed in. Perhaps to make sure the volume ended as strongly as possible? “The Phantom Wife” wouldn’t have made for as good a stopping point as “The Ginza Ghost.”
I’d highly advise skipping the portion of the introduction that discusses the individual stories. I made the mistake of reading the first few and, although they didn’t quite include spoilers, they contained enough information to affect the way I interpreted the stories and the evidence.
The first story was a fairly basic mystery. It wasn’t until later in the collection that one of Osaka’s signature elements, the possibility of supernatural involvement, came into play. Although none of his stories contained true supernatural elements, many of them were designed to look like they might. In “The Phantom Wife,” it appeared that a man was killed by his vengeful dead wife. The murder in “The Monster of the Lighthouse” seemed to have been committed by an enormously strong red octopus-like monster. In “The Ginza Ghost,” a young woman seemed to have been murdered by the ghost of a jealous wife. In “The Cold Night’s Clearing,” the murderer looked to be none other than Santa Claus himself.
Another thing that came up a lot in Osaka’s stories was optical illusions. While the way these illusions were uncovered didn’t always work for me, they were certainly interesting. One part, in particular, brought to mind 2015’s “The Dress,” the one that either looked blue and black or white and gold depending on who you asked.
I liked but didn’t necessarily love most of the collection. My particular favorites were “The Mourning Locomotive” (even though it relied heavily on information found in a letter after everything was all over), “The Ginza Ghost,” “The Guardian of the Lighthouse” (tragic and horrific), and “The Demon in the Mine" (wonderful incorporation of the setting). “The Cold Night’s Clearing” was also quite good, as long as you’re okay with your Christmas stories being very depressing. And “The Hungry Letter-Box” was a nice change of pace, the only mystery that didn’t involve a death of some kind. I later learned, after reading the bit about this story in the introduction, that this was the one story in the collection written after Osaka switched to spy stories and comedies.
There were other stories I didn't like quite as much. “The Phantasm of the Stone Wall” was a little boring, and the deductions in “The Mesmerising Light” were largely unnecessary and could have been done away with if one of the characters had come up with better questions. “The Three Madmen” and “The Hangman of the Department Store” were both nice enough mysteries, but not the best or most intriguing mysteries in the collection. “The Monster of the Lighthouse” started off okay but became, for me, the worst story in the collection by the end. Its placement right after “The Mourning Locomotive” probably didn’t help.
Ah, and I feel I should mention really quick that some of the stories have very gory and descriptive crime scenes. The ones that made me cringe the most were “The Mourning Locomotive” and “The Three Madmen.” The first had many grisly deaths by train, including the aftermath of trying to clean up, and the second included a victim whose brain had been removed.
Those with more of a taste for short stories might like this collection more than I did, but it wasn’t bad. “The Demon in the Mine,” the longest story in the book, made me wish that Osaka’s one novel, Yacht of Death, had been translated. The story’s greater number of pages gave him more time to really set up the situation (although the characters still weren’t fleshed out at all), and I loved the way he incorporated the specifics of the mine into the mystery.
The book included a publisher’s note on Japanese weights and measures, as well as a few translator’s notes. I wouldn’t have minded if there had been a few more translator’s notes - there were at least a couple things I was curious about that didn’t get notes.
(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)