In one scene in Ling Ma’s 2018 novel Severance, the protagonist Candace Chen visits Hong Kong on a work trip. She takes a cab at night, and the view becomes an “aching stream of billboards and advertisements.”
Having lived in Hong Kong for most of high school, I can attest to this description. I remember how lights and screens would collide in a dreamlike vacuum at night. Everything was stimulating, so nothing drew my focus. In this numbed (and privileged) state, I moved along the grooves the city laid out for me, as in its efficient metro lines and shopping malls.
One of those routines for me was visiting this expensive coffee shop in the middle of a low-income neighborhood. “Ah, capitalism," I’d say. It’s become a trope to lightly make fun of our systems as we participate in them, to visit the coffee shop and say “Ah, gentrification” to show we are self-aware but also disheartened — what can we do, after all? It seems all we can do to not seem stupid or totally sheep-like is to lightly mention it.
Candace Chen, millennial office drone, does this throughout Severance. In cool, frank prose, Ma sketches Candace’s major life changes as the result of happenstance and inertia. She oversees the manufacture of Bibles at a major corporation and acknowledges that she is complicit in the larger system that worsens working conditions while driving down wages. “I was just doing my job,” she says. She is always dimly aware of her part in the global supply chain but too tired, too busy, to confront it.
When a fungal disease called Shen Fever spreads to become a pandemic, Candace barely notices. After all, the disintegration of the infrastructure underlying worldwide commerce is slow — banal, even. Victims of Shen Fever continue their everyday routines long after they have died, as maggots eat their faces out, even after they forget what the routines are for. One of the disease’s first manifestations at Candace’s job is when her coworker sits at his computer surrounded by coffee mugs, sending emails about projects that had been completed years ago.
When all her friends and coworkers leave New York, Candace stays behind, sequestering herself in the empty office tower and creating tasks to complete in the absence of routine. In the “processional of glass offices and dimmed cubicles,” as anonymous security cameras watch from every corner of the ceiling, she writes her office-speak emails and executes her tasks.
I wonder how many of us see ourselves in Candace: As the world comes to a slow, sputtering end, how far forward would inertia thrust us? What lengths would we go to scratch the itch of productivity and find security in thoughtless routine?
But what would we do without that security? There’s nothing like a pandemic to remind us of our need for closure. We were thrust into a chaos of information and connection while physically sequestered in our homes. For many of us it was a chance to reexamine the ideas behind the routines we lived by. For many others it left us grasping for any mindless task to complete. For others still it completely shattered any sense of routine and security.
Severance asks how we should process this chaos, which could be conceptualized in three ways, from most specific to broad: first, the pandemic overhaul of routine; second, exploitative labor systems, media overload, environmental degradation of the 21st century; finally, the lack of obvious answers to the questions of why we’re here and what the hell we’re supposed to do. What kinds of routines and systems allow us to acknowledge and process this chaos, and what other kinds of routines and systems merely blur and repress it?
Thinking about how exactly to discern between the two, I was reminded of what Vi Khi Nao, cross-genre Vietnamese American writer, said in an interview with BOMB when asked about her state of mind when writing.
“The words arrived because I built a makeshift inherent ritualistic structure,” Nao said. “If you know you have to write something by the end of the day, your consciousness prepares you. The machine of production has already started percolating into your system and moves slowly across the day until you produce that particular energy, and it blasts onto the page — the instance of procreation, linguistically speaking.”
It’s interesting that Nao uses terms like “machine of production” and “makeshift inherent ritualistic structure” to describe her writing routine. When placed in this discussion, it suggests that we should focus not on the mechanical nature of routine itself but the ideas that drive the machines.
We would do well to reflect on whether our daily rituals are ones of “procreation” — anything that looks the chaos in the face and does something with it — or whether they shift our attention away from the chaos. And the thing about inertia is that once you change direction, it’s easy to keep going. Without giving away too much, Candace’s recollections of her mother’s harsh disciplinary voice and conversations with her boyfriend spur her into changing direction.
These questions are ever-ringing: What can we do? What am I supposed to do? The first step is to stop. Ask, if I were fevered, what absurd routine would I repeat on end while being eaten alive by maggots? (I can all too easily imagine myself as Candace’s coworker, surrounded by coffee mugs at his desk).
Our systems compel us to be too busy and tired to answer these questions, even as we keep asking them. Simply stopping, in the mental, private sense, is the most difficult first step with the most potential to explode in the public sphere. There is a measured hope in Severance that as we think about what to do next, the remnants of routines that have given our life meaning in the past will continue to do so.
Iris Lee is a Korean American freshman studying English and Psychology. She has lived in China, Korea and the United States. She is curious about what different people and disciplines have to say about the role of inertia in our lives.