Candace Chen’s life is so much about chaos and loss that she finds solace and satisfaction in her job coordinating the sourcing of materials and production of Bibles. It’s a job that entails such minutiae as making sure there’s a supplier for the crushed gems which decorate a specific best-selling Bible even though many of the Asian countries supplying the materials have had to close because the crushed stones cause lung disease.
But Candace, a millennial who immigrated from China when very young, works through such hurdles with aplomb, simply moving on, over and around any impediment. That’s one reason why she is chosen to stay at the company’s New York office as all the other workers flee, are dying or being turned in zombies by a virulent and unstoppable fungal infection called Shen Fever.
Candace’s story—from her early losses to her unplanned but not unwanted pregnancy in a Manhattan that is rapidly falling apart is told in Severance, the first novel by Ling Ma.
Ma, who teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago, writes with a dry wit and keen sense of observation, shaping Severance into a darkly comic novel in a genre that might be best called Apocalypse Office and is unlike any other urban disaster books—or movies—I’ve ever come across. Ma, who has an MFA from Cornell University, was inspired in part by watching movies like those by George Romero, who was known for his satirical but grisly horror films such as “Night of the Living Dead” as well as TV series about Millennials like “Sex in the City.” But even more so her book was honed by working in an office and dealing with office politics which she describes as horrifying.
“The company I worked for was downsizing, and I started writing this book in the last few months of getting laid off—a kind of fun, apocalyptic short story,” she says about the novel’s origination. “I wanted to be destructive in some ways, and fiction can realize a lot of fantasies. I was kind of angry, but I also felt extremely liberated and extremely gleeful at the same time; it was a strange combination of glee and anger at once.”
Taking her severance and unemployment compensation, she continued to work on the story—as a sort of therapy. It was also an escape, just like Candace is first able to escape from New York and then from the cultist gang of survivors, freeing herself and going into the unknown.
What: Talk and signing
When: January 17 @ 6pm
Where: Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 S Woodlawn Ave, Chicago, IL
FYI: (773) 752-4381; semcoop.com