The Thing, Itself

This is the final of a five-part series on fiction and fiction writing. If you haven’t been tracking it, I’d suggest starting at the beginning.

I’ve talked quite a bit about all of the paratext I’ve carried into my reading of Ling Ma’s Severance, beginning with the book being originally introduced to me as important in the way that my own work could never be, followed by a limited knowledge of the author’s biography, followed by the book’s location within the genre of millennial ennui, followed by the book itself as an object of highly advertised consumption. It’s a book that weighs a ton, even as it fits easily in my briefcase.

But, as the phenomenologists say, let’s bracket all that. Let’s try to take the book on its own terms, as a being in itself, an être-en-soi.

The first thing to notice is that the book is clever. I don’t mean that in a fussy, faint-praise way, I mean clever like ingenious, like an intricate wooden joint that fits together in unexpected forms. The idea of nostalgia is taken up in multiple ways, for instance. Nostalgia is the basis of the very first thing we see Candace take up as a planned event, her 1980s formal dinner with her friends—ironic nostalgia, of course, since Candace and her friends would have experienced very little of the 1980s as conscious human beings. She wouldn’t have been an early adopter of Depeche Mode at age two or three. The irony is a protection from the death sentence of earnest nostalgia, a literal death in this story, nostalgia and repetition of the past being a marker of disease.

Imitation and inauthenticity is a theme. Candace disdains the Gemstone Bible that she helps to produce, noting that the Bible is the most remarkable example of a single stable object gussied up to sell in a thousand varieties. She becomes a critical connoisseur of the varied imitation leathers of book covers. But she also takes delight in her first business trip to China and her discovery of the layers of imitation, stacked like a filo pastry:

What surprised me in Hong Kong, however, was how many iterations of the same thing were available. Take a Louis Vuitton bag, for example. You could buy the actual bag, a prototype of the actual bag from the factory that produced it, or an imitation. And if an imitation, what kind of imitation? An expensive, detailed, hand-worked imitation, a cheap imitation made of polyurethane, or something in between? Nowhere else was there such an elaborate gradient between the real and the fake. Nowhere else did the boundaries of real and fake seem so porous.

Candace herself has moments of this kind of gradient. She spends her first summer in New York wearing her mother’s old Contempo Casuals dresses, sleeping with whatever man is most convincing that afternoon, loving no one. She takes serious photographs based on her own observational capabilities, but then derides them as “Eggleston knock-offs, Stephen Shore derivatives.” She is closely aware of the levels of authenticity in the city’s varied Asian communities, which blocks are most unselfconsciously Chinese because they’re free from the tourist gaze, but when visiting China, she’s deeply aware of her own limited language, with her inability to name a Chinese food aside from General Tso’s chicken and Peking duck. She loves New York in part because everyone’s already experienced it before they ever arrive, through Woody Allen and Sex and the City and Seinfeld. Her own authenticity is just as layered as an array of Louis Vuitton bags.

The office politics of commerce and the office politics of cults (and even the office politics of boyfriends) are found to be not dissimilar. The talentless but overbearing men convinced of their own sophistication, the urgency around whatever trivial mission is on the docket, the shifting allegiances among co-workers as they vie for favor, the perpetual uncertainty over where one stands.

As I say, it’s a smart book, cleverly interwoven, everything in simultaneous motion with no solid center. But so far, it’s really an essay more than a novel, one of a long heritage of participatory social critiques born of Joan Didion: David Foster Wallace, Joni Tevis, Andrew Kay. Severance fits right in, a book about ideas. In order to become a novel—and there it is, right on the cover, “A NOVEL”—it needed a motor, a way to get from A to B. So, like a pickup truck underneath the parade float, we have the zombie story.

Taken on its own, the zombie story is pretty good. The road trip to The Facility, the really unusual way that the zombie infection manifests itself (I’m trying really hard here to not do any spoilers, something I didn’t need to worry about with the first part of the book, because essays don’t have spoilers, there’s no plot twist to worry about revealing), the details of the survivors’ mode of scavenging. The last sixty pages, taken on its own, was moving and suspenseful, a page-turner mostly distinct from the slower, chewier thematic work preceding it. The alternate title for this novel might have been Candace Wakes Up… And It Only Takes a Zombie Apocalypse to Do It.

Okay, now let’s bolt the paratext back on, slowly. Severance is (was) a publishing phenomenon, inexplicable as hits always are. It’s a good book, to be sure, but the bookstore is jammed with good books, most of which go nowhere. If we knew how to make a hit, we’d get it right every time. Part of what made it a hit… part of what got it acquired in the first place… was authorial pedigree, the right MFA and the right magazine jobs and the right preceding publication record. This same book arriving in the slush would have had a hell of a time not being swept into the storm drain with the rest.

The book is a hit in part because it landed at the right moment, landed at a time when “well, we’re all fucked” is a recognizable literary and experiential theme, landed with two generations of Americans coming to terms with the lies we left behind for them, landed when we see the active dismantling of almost every social good ever created. And it’s a hit in part because the star-making machinery behind the popular song (to quote Joni Mitchell) went full-throttle, getting the book reviewed by the tastemakers and the influencers.

And now it’s out there on its own, acquiring stars and likes and thumbs-ups, themselves a form of currency tradable for dollars in an uncertain exchange rate. It’s hard to leave a book review on Goodreads, for instance, without assigning stars… the whole POINT of Goodreads is stars, is the quantification that makes a 3.85 book mildly disappointing and a 4.25 book a rousing success. The star-making machinery has moved on to the new and shiny, and peak-Severance is behind us.

Who knows what might be next?

The San Francisco Chronicle’s “Little Man” rating system, devised in 1942 by cartoonist Warren Goodrich