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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

The Novel That Captures Coronavirus Angst Was Written By A Topeka Native Before 2020

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
A 2018 novel by a Topeka native has proven eerily prescient in 2020.

In "Severance," published in 2018, a fictional pandemic causes a zombie apocalypse. It also exposes the not-so-fictional anxieties of life in a late capitalist world. Two years later, we're all "fevered."

In its initial stages, Shen Fever is hard to detect.

So begins a Shen Fever FAQ passed out at an emergency staff meeting at Spectra, the New York City publishing house where Candace Chen works in "Severance," a novel by Topeka native Ling Ma. The New Yorker praised the book with a headline proclaiming that it captured "the bleak, fatalistic mood of 2018" — the year it came out.

By sheer coincidence, "Severance" was the first book I read in 2020, and the last book I read before the coronavirus reached the United States. As the storyline in the news began mimicking the details of Ma's novel, I began to feel an unsettling sense of deja vu. Unsettling, I should say, because the novel culminates in a zombie apocalypse. Candace outlasts all of her coworkers in the office, and eventually becomes the last person alive in New York City.

Early symptoms include memory lapse, headaches, disorientation, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Because these symptoms are often mistaken for the common cold, patients are often unaware they have contracted Shen Fever.

Company management distributes N95 masks and protective gloves to its employees for safety when handling products shipped from China, where workers assembling specialty book covers have been dying of a mysterious illness. They use office-speak platitudes about putting people first, then ask everyone to sign a waiver.

Candace is a project manager for the Bibles department. Before long, she's struggling to find materials she needs for the popular Gemstone Bible. As factories in China start shutting down, her inconvenienced clients won't accept that there isn't another factory to call because it's not just one factory, it's all the factories; people are dying.

When the fictional virus is still confined to China, Shen Fever is perceived in the U.S. as a supply chain problem.

So I was a teensy bit freaked out one February morning listening to Marketplace Morning Report on my way to work. Factories in China had been idled, with workers out sick or staying home to prevent further spread. Companies in the United States were scrambling to find alternate sources of materials.

No way, I thought. I've thought it many times since.

After highlighting the passages of "Severance" that could now be presented as nonfiction, my copy of the book is very neon. Everything from the doom scrolling to survivalist Googling ("how to build a fire") to what Candace calls the Death Knell — the number of deaths printed daily on the cover of the New York Times, but removed after 250,000 so as not to "incite panic."

Ling Ma doesn't want to talk about any of this. I've been trying to get an interview with her all year. Lots of people have, and she's been declining all of those requests.

The only exception I can track down is a Q&A published in the Chicago Tribune in March, when "Severance" won the Whiting Award for Fiction. In that interview, Ma said the book was inspired by real-world catastrophes: Hurricane Sandy, the SARS virus, the Ebola outbreak, blackouts in New York.

"I thought I was reflecting the then-present, what was happening around me at the time," Ma told the interviewer. "I didn’t think I was exaggerating that much."

Ma didn't predict the pandemic. She just imagined the effect a pandemic would have on the world around her. She was right about a lot of things, pairing an uncanny depiction of how systems fail us with deep truths about humans in crisis.

In the story, Candace clings to her routine, finding comfort in it, tuning out the decay around her. She keeps clocking in at work to satisfy the terms of her contract, even as vegetation overtakes the city. She dutifully reports building maintenance issues to management, not quite grasping that no one is reading her emails. When she gets stuck in the elevator at work and calls an emergency number, the faraway operator asks why she's still there. "I'm working," she says, annoyed.

Although she doesn't have Shen Fever, it's hard to say what distinguishes her rote behavior from the fate of "the fevered": Shen Fever's victims eventually glaze over and start performing a pantomime of one mundane activity over and over on an infinite loop. Setting and clearing the table for dinner. Folding and stacking clothes in a store window. Pressing buttons on a remote control and laughing no matter what appears on the screen. Trying on the same outfit in front of a mirror, forever.

What wakes Candace out of her work-trance is the sound of bells ringing in a now-quiet Times Square. She follows the sound and witnesses the spectacle of a horse once used for carriage rides galloping free. Candace marvels at the sight of it. She can't help herself. She snaps a picture and posts it to her long-dormant photography blog. That revival of wonder changes her course.

"Ling Ma did for cubicle culture what Nora Ephron did for divorce," says Jeffrey Ann Goudie, a Topeka book critic who interviewed Ma in her hometown when "Severance" first was published. Goudie explains that Ma started writing the book in her own cubicle, while waiting to get laid off from her job at Playboy. She worked there as a fact-checker. Witnessing one round of layoffs after another, Ma "saw the writing on the wall," according to Goudie, and spent her remaining days at Playboy writing about zombies.

"Severance," says Goudie, is a "revenge novel." The ex she's lampooning is globalism, capitalism, and workplace culture rolled into one. Only problem is, those aren't the kinds of exes you can just walk away from in one of those rom-com, after-the-breakup powerwalk scenes.

It's tempting to ask Ling Ma for the moral of the story. What are we supposed to be learning right now? What are we supposed to do with ourselves, faced with this all-too-real pandemic playing out nearly as she imagined, minus zombies?

But this is a completely ridiculous thing to ask of a novelist. Or anyone, really. Ma was trying to show us in 2018 much of what the coronavirus has since revealed off-page. But you don't grasp the moral until the story is over, and this one isn't over.

The fact that Ma refuses to talk about a book she wrote years ago, on an infinite loop, might be the best answer she could give. She's writing a new book. She'll talk about that one when she's done. She's showing us what it means to resist the hypnotic pull of doing things the way we've always done them, on repeat. We have to come up with something new.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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