In the office satire ‘Severance,’ workplace routine literally kills

For those of us who have felt trapped in jobs we hate, the walking dead in Ling Ma’s new dystopian novel “Severance” may seem all too familiar.

In Ma’s satire of a world like ours, the victims who get fatally infected by Shen Fever get stuck in a zombie-like state and are doomed to repeat actions they did in life. They are not driven by a bloodthirsty need for brains, but their mundane routines. Retail workers keep folding clothes, office drones keep typing at their desks, families keep setting the table for dinner. More unsettling than a violent zombie is a villain you cannot outrun — the one that comes from within your own mind.

“Shen Fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories,” the Asian American narrator of the novel, Candace Chen, explains. “But what is the difference between the fevered and us?”

It’s the grand question each survivor faces as they Google 7 stages of grief and Maslow’s pyramid before infrastructures collapse. The book follows what kind of life would you seek if an infectious disease wiped out the world’s population and you were among the survivors spared. You are suddenly freed from the drudgery of work, but now you are forced to reckon with what you actually want.

Ma got the inspiration to write the book through her own experiences with an office job. She started writing “Severance” at her desk in the weeks before a mass layoff as she watched colleagues who had been at the company for decades lose their jobs.

“It was a fun apocalyptic short story but there was an anger to it,” Ma told Ladders. “I realized that the anger had to do with notions of work, and I wrote it as a novel to tap in and see where that anger might lead me.”

On what keeps people in jobs they hate

In one of the darkly comedic chapters, Candace, our Millennial narrator, agrees to a big payout in exchange to keep working at her Manhattan office, an office that is increasingly deserted as employees flee the city in hopes of not catching Shen Fever. The employees that remain with Candace are the ambitious young ones like her. They dress up in button-ups and still squabble over office politics even when upper management is gone.

“Everyone was keeping score,” Candace notes. “Like who would get to compile and send the weekly productivity reports to management, who arrived on time and who arrived late, who heeded corporate policy by wearing those hideous N95 masks, who was taking the initiative for restocking the coffee filters.”

Later, as the office clears out entirely, Candace, the remaining survivor, moves and sets up camp in an executive’s office. Without a family to go to, she stays moored to the routine of a day job. In her Chinese mother’s dying words to her, she told Candace that her goal was for Candace to be of use.

“There’s something about this maybe immigrant imperative to be useful, and to be successful, that comes into play when she remains in the office that long,” Ma said. 

When Candace’s boyfriend Jonathan urges her to quit her job and leave New York City with him, their difference in work philosophies leads to their breakup.

“You live your life idealistically. You think it’s possible to opt out of the system. No regular income, no health insurance. You quit jobs on a dime,” Candace thinks at him on their last night together. “You think this is freedom but I still see the bare, painstakingly cheap way you live, the scrimping and saving, and that is not freedom either.”

On our own Shen Fever loops 

It does not take a worldwide plague to relate to the frustration of not having who you are in your head fit the version of you going to work. 

For Ma, the book allowed her to explore her own reasons for overstaying at her office job.

“Part of writing this novel was trying to figure out what’s keeping me tied to this job. Everyone could see the writing on the wall. Other employees were finding new jobs, but for some reason I never did,” Ma said. “I really enjoyed my coworkers. I did like the lifestyle that I had built around that job. But I also knew that because the company was not advancing, because they were making layoffs, that it was not a sustainable lifestyle.”

“Severance” is a call to action against letting the comforts of rituals stop you from going after what you want — whether that’s leaving a toxic job or escaping the apocalypse. Habits can anchor and sink you. “Severance” poses questions about what actions our minds will remember us for. You do not want your Shen Fever loop behavior to be you scrolling through your phone, checking your emails even in death.  

“I don’t mean to say that routines are a bad thing,” Ma said. “But there is a certain point where routine can kill.”