The start of the COVID-19 pandemic saw a rise in popularity of movies, books, games, and other existing entertainment with a focus on pandemics and their effects. Movies like Contagion were trending. A board game actually called Pandemic was more popular than ever. One of these pieces of pandemic-themed media is Severance, a book by Ling Ma that came out in 2018. I decided to read it and see how it made me feel about the current state of things. These are my thoughts.
Severance follows a protagonist named Candace, an Asian-American woman living in New York and working as a production coordinator for books printed overseas. The book jumps between several time periods–before, during, and after a global pandemic wipes out nearly everyone everywhere. There are plenty of differences from our current world situation. For example, the pandemic in the book is a fungal infection, caused by invisible spores in the air and not from contact with other people. The illness causes a variety of symptoms, but the main one is that those who are “fevered” lose their recognition of the world and begin mindlessly reenacting habits of their life, with no regard for eating, drinking, or normal life needs. This is what eventually kills them.
The main character is one of few survivors, who ends up joining with a small group of other survivors -classic pandemic entertainment stuff. But the rest of it is entirely unique. Ma’s story is in parts a satire about our society and the expectations of America’s workforce. It’s also an exploration of family and what motivates us. It’s stunningly written and uses precise and insightful language that caught me off guard and entirely entranced me. My one complaint was a lack of resolution and conclusion. The ending felt like it came too fast and left too many questions. Ultimately that didn’t detract from my feelings about the book. It is excellent.
But is it a good idea to read about a pandemic while facing one ourselves? I don’t have a decisive answer, because that depends a bit on your perspective. I am a constantly anxious person and I have struggled at so many moments during the past months. The complete lack of certainty about what will happen and what the future holds is terrifying and there’s a constant tightness of stress in my chest that doesn’t let up. But, I am the type of person who likes to escape into literature. Reading about a pandemic was less of an escape from reality and more a way of reflecting on how much worse things could be or how to reframe the current situation in my mind.If you are someone who wants nothing more than reassurance that things could be worse, and a new perspective on the current state of things, reading something like this might just work well for you. If you’re so overwhelmed and anxious hearing even a single thing more about pandemics and disease, take care of your mental health; stay away from pandemic-focused sources of entertainment until things are better. Severance will still be around when things are much better, and it’ll be as great a read then as it is now.
Annie Burdick is a writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon, but transplanted from the Midwest. She also works as a community inclusion specialist for adults with disabilities. Previously she's edited and written for magazines, websites, books, and small businesses, on an absurdly wide range of topics. She spends the rest of her time reading, eating good food, and finding new adventures in the Pacific Northwest.