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Ling Ma

  • awardWinner, Fiction, Whiting Award, 2020
  • awardWinner, New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award, United States, 2019
  • awardShortlisted, PEN/Hemingway Award for a Debut Novel, United States, 2019
  • awardLonglisted, International Dublin Literary Award, Ireland, 2020
  • Named a Best Book of 2018 by: NPR • Elle • Marie Claire • Buzzfeed • Refinery29 • Jezebel • Bustle • Electric Literature • Lit Hub • BookPage • Bookish • Mental Floss • Chicago Review of Books • HuffPost • Electric Literature • A.V. Club • Jezebel • Vulture

    Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine: her work, watching movies with her boyfriend, avoiding thoughts of her recently deceased Chinese immigrant parents. So she barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps the world.

    Candace joins a small group of survivors, led by the power-hungry Bob, on their way to the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?

    A send-up and takedown of the rituals, routines and missed opportunities of contemporary life, Severance is a moving family story, a deadpan satire and a heartfelt tribute to the connections that drive us to do more than survive.



    Read an excerpt on LitHub 
    Read an excerpt on VICE
    Severance is Buzzfeed’s #1 pick for summer reads! 
    Instagram book buzz! #severancethenovel
    Listen to Ling Ma’s Spotify Severance playlist on Large Hearted Boy 
    Black Mountain Institute: Severance Radio podcast book club  


    Chicago Review of Books 
    Kill Your Darlings 
    LA Times
    Lit Hub: 10 best debut novels of the decade 
    Oprah Magazine: 20 Dystopian Novels Everyone Should Read 
    Paris Review 
    The Lifted Brow


    A Cup of Jo
    American Booksellers Association, Sep 18 Indie Next List
    Book Page 
    Chicago Magazine
    Chicago Tribune 
    Guardian, ‘Best summer books 2018’ 
    Literary Hub: Midwestern Women: An Essential Reading List
    Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
    Marie Claire: Best Books of 2018 
    Millions, August Most Anticipated 
    New Republic
    Newtown Review of Books: ‘Ma has produced [a] thoughtful apocalypse…[she] is able to use this vision to challenge and engage her readers and expose modern society.’ 
    New York Times
    New Yorker 
    New Yorker, ‘What We’re Reading This Summer’ 
    NPR ‘46 Great Books to Read This Summer’ 
    Overland: July in Fiction 
    Psychology Today 
    Publishers Weekly    
    Spectrum Culture: Our Favourite Books of 2023     

    Ling Ma
    About the Author

    Ling Ma was born in Sanming, China and grew up in Utah, Nebraska and Kansas. She attended the University of Chicago and received an MFA from Cornell University. Prior to graduate school she worked as a journalist and editor. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Vice, Playboy, Chicago Reader, Ninth Letter and other publications. A chapter of ...

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    3 September 2018
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    Praise for Ling Ma

    ‘Ling Ma’s apocalypse glistens with terror, humour, anger and humanity…You will not be able to stop reading this ingeniously constructed and electrifyingly harrowing book.’

    ‘A moving meditation on home, belonging and life itself—all rendered in cool yet affecting prose that’s too good not to keep reading.’

    ‘My autocorrect keeps putting “King Ma” instead of Ling Ma, but maybe that’s on the mark: she totally rules. Severance is like nothing else around: a witty workplace novel and a terrifying plague yarn, an immigrant story and a sort of homecoming, full of Chinese whispers and New York ghosts.’

    ‘Ling Ma has given us a terrifyingly plausible vision of our collective future, one in which our comforts have become pathology and our habits death—and, in her protagonist, a hero who doesn’t know if she should be seeking salvation or oblivion. And yet, somehow, Severance could easily be the funniest book of the year. It’s a brilliant, deadpan novel of survival, in this world and in the precarious world to come.’

    ‘This is a biting indictment of late-stage capitalism and a chilling vision of what comes after, but that doesn’t mean it’s a Marxist screed or a dry Hobbesian thought experiment…Ma also offers lovely meditations on memory and the immigrant experience. Smart, funny, humane, and superbly well-written.’

    ‘Ma’s language does so much in this book, and its precision, its purposeful specificity, implicates an entire generation. But what is most  remarkable is the gentleness with which Ma describes those working within the capital-S System. What does it mean if a person finds true comfort working as a “cog” in a system they disagree with? Is that comfort any less real?’

    ‘Ma’s writing is compelling and cogent, perfectly satirising a world that often feels beyond parody.’

    ‘Embracing the [apocalyptic fiction] genre but somehow transcending it, Ma creates a truly engrossing and believable anti-utopian world…[An] extraordinary debut.’

    ‘Ma’s writing about the jargon of globalised capitalism has a mix of humour and pathos that reminded me a little of Infinite Jest and a little of George Saunders; it produced a sense of estrangement from my cosmetics, my clothes, and my iPhone. I finished it feeling sad and sensitive to the garbage all around us that comes at such a high cost to planetary and human welfare.’

    ‘In this shrewd postapocalyptic debut, Ma imagines the end times in the world of late capitalism, marked by comforting, debilitating effects of nostalgia on its characters…The novel’s strength lies in Ma’s accomplished handling of the walking dead conceit to reflect on what constitutes the good life. This is a clever and dextrous debut.’

    ‘A smart, searing exposé on the perils of consumerism, Google overload, and millennial malaise…An already established audience will be eager to discover this work.’

    ‘A fierce debut from a writer with seemingly boundless imagination…It’s a stunning, audacious book with a fresh take on both office politics and what the apocalypse might bring: This is the way the world ends, Ma seems to be saying, not with a bang but a memo.’

    ‘A clever and dextrous debut.’

    ‘In the end, Severance isn’t so much a story about zombies as it is an imaginative critique of capitalism. Underneath Ma’s deadpan comedy lie shrewd observations of the West and the decadence of our everyday existence.’

    ‘Funny, frightening, and touching…Ling Ma manages the impressive trick of delivering a bildungsroman, a survival tale, and satire of late capitalist millennial angst in one book, and Severance announces its author as a supremely talented writer to watch.’

    ‘How do you fit a zombie novel inside an immigrant story inside a coming-of-age tale? Ling Ma…accomplished this feat in her gripping and original turducken of a novel…Fascinating.’

    ‘It’s a stunning book. I devoured Severance in as close to a single sitting as possible…and it shook me on an emotional level that no other apocalyptic novel has reached.’

    ‘Ma’s engrossing, masterfully written debut transforms the mundane into a landscape of tricky memory, where questions of late-stage capitalism, immigration, displacement and motherhood converge in such a sly build-up as to render the reader completely stunned.’

    Severance operates with severe restraint…but there’s a power to the restraint, and an elegance to the understatement.’

    ‘It’s a novel that sneaks up on you from all sides: it’s an affecting portrayal of loss, a precise fictional evocation of group dynamics, and a sharp character study of its protagonist, Candace Chen. It also features one of the most hauntingly plausible end-of-the-world scenarios I’ve encountered in recent fiction…[T]his is a monumentally unnerving novel, one that leaves no easy answers or comfortable nooks in which to take refuge.’

    ‘A hilariously searing critique of who we are and how we survive in a modern world…Ma’s caustic humour and incredibly smart commentary on late capitalism compares our adherence to routine and groupthink to a terminal infection. Her precise language, original voice, and use of all-too-relatable details inform the debut’s deadpan depiction of a society teetering on the edge.’

    ‘A cracking read, deeply moving and at times hilarious.’

    Severance is the most gorgeously written novel I’ve read all year; when I finished it, I immediately picked it up and read it all over again.’

    ‘Ma’s apocalypse is a work of genius…wickedly funny…an extraordinary book.’

    ‘A deadpan meditation on consumerism.’

    ‘Ling Ma’s debut novel tackles countless themes – immigration, work culture, family, capitalism, and the confusing aimlessness of your early 20s – with a dry wit that keeps the horrific digestible, the repetitive laughable, and the pages turning.’

    ‘A quirky and addictive read about adulthood, loneliness and humanity.’

    ‘Laced within its dystopian narrative is an encapsulation of a first-generation immigrant’s nostalgia for New York…“Severance” evokes traces of, if not Meghan Daum in her “misspent youth,” then the essay “Goodbye to All That,” when a young and equally bemused Joan Didion looks at gleaming kitchens through brownstone windows, considering New York not as a place of residence but as a romantic notion.’

    ‘[A] slick debut…with impressive evens of tone…a deadpan, dystopian takedown of capitalism and globalism.’

    ‘Puzzling out the truth is just one of the pleasures of reading Severance, as Ma leaves much of the reality ambiguous. It is also a very funny book, skewering metropolitan millennial life and relationships.’

    Severance is simultaneously daring and restrained…Ma’s great skill is in making the familiar seem utterly fresh, even as she shows us how deadening our familiar lives can be.’

    ‘Ling Ma’s debut is the only thing I can think of that I’ve recommended to everyone who has asked….I tore through it in nearly one sitting, enthralled by the idea of a post-apocalyptic New York and beyond where the zombies are not Walking Dead extras, but regular people trapped in an infinite loop, performing the mundanities of contemporary existence.’

    ‘A book about work that puts the work in the context of globalization, a book that is mordant and sad and full of quicksilver allegories. I loved [it] so much.’

    ‘With exquisite pacing, Ling Ma alternates between Candace’s precarious present and her childhood as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and contemplates the possibility of a future in a lonely, blasted world. Severance is a scathing portrait of a society collapsing under its own ungovernable appetites, as well as a haunting meditation on family inheritance and its loss.’

    ‘Ma’s prose is, for the most part, understated and restrained, somewhat in the manner of Kazuo Ishiguro, and particularly his classic “The Remains of the Day,” from 1989, which Ma has cited as an influence…Ma is at her most deft when depicting…the amputation of the immigrant’s past, preserved like a phantom limb whose pain is haunted with absence.’

    ‘In “Severance,” Shen Fever is wiping out the world’s population, but the hungers of capitalism, and the fracturing of globalization, is what has insured social death. It’s an end times retrofitted to the monotonies of our generation, packaged in mordant millennial pink.’

    ‘With scathing wit and savage imagination, Ling Ma’s apocalyptic office novel Severance invites readers to recognize both the humor and dangers of America’s decadent consumerism. In her disconcertingly plausible world, Ma is able to atomize the absurdity of everyday life into something digestible, even downright funny.’

    ‘Alternately gritty and dreamlike, this is an anti-capitalist novel perfectly pitched for these interesting times.’

    ‘Ma’s prose is simple and clear, and the narrative catapults us forwards through the book…Consider Severance a neatly wrapped collection of the barely subsumed anxieties we currently live with, written as an entertaining adventure story.’

    Severance is a pandemic-zombie-dystopian-novel, but it’s also a relatable millennial coming-of-age story and an intelligent critique of exploitative capitalism, mindless consumerism, and the drudgery of bullshit jobs.’

    Severance is the best work of fiction I’ve read yet about the millennial condition—the alienation and cruelty that comes with being a functional person under advanced global capitalism, and the compromised pleasures and irreducibly personal meaning to be found in claiming some stability in a terrible world. I love how, in this novel, doom is inevitable, and yet it comes so slowly you might not even notice it. Ling Ma has written one of my favorite novels of the year.’

    ‘A satirical spin on the end times—kind of like The Office meets The Leftovers.’

    ‘[A] standout debut. Satiric and playful—as well as scary…Ling Ma is an assured and inventive storyteller [and her novel] reflects on the nature of human identity and how much the repetitive tasks we perform come to define who we are…A sardonic wake-up call.’

    ‘[A] semi-surreal sendup of a workplace and its utopia of rules, not unlike Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End…Laced with Ma’s dystopian narrative is an arresting encapsulation of a first-generation immigrant’s nostalgia for New York…Severance evokes traces of…Joan Didion.’

    ‘Tense and elegant, Ma’s writing here masterfully treads the line between genre fiction and literature. Part bildungsroman, part horror flick, Severance thrillingly morphs into a novel about self-worth, about the kinds of value we place on our own lives.’

    ‘Ling Ma’s extraordinary debut encompasses many genres and might just be the first and only coming-of-age, immigrant experience, anti-capitalist zombie novel you’ll ever need.’

    ‘I recommend [Severance] unreservedly: it’s perfect for when you’re living in that space between “oh shit, what if the world ends” and “oh shit, what if the world doesn’t end”—and truly, who isn’t living in that space right now?’

    ‘A suspenseful adventure that doubles as a sly critique of late capitalism.’

    ‘A satirical look at capitalism in the modern world, focusing on banality amidst an apocalypse…What underpins it all is the feeling that it could so easily be our real-life future.’

    ‘Ma’s vision…is a refreshing change from the standard dystopian narrative.’

    ‘As debut novels go, Severance is about as original and assured as they come.’

    ‘A satiric vision that takes in late capitalism, the immigrant experience, and the anomie of early adulthood.’ ‘For readers who love their literary fiction with a dash of apocalypse, this one’s for you.’ Bookish

    Severance shares as much with Then We Came To The End, Joshua Ferris’ meditation on the failure of an advertising agency, as it does with The Walking Dead; Ma plays with voice, alternating between the first-person singular and plural to show how easily an individual comes to identify as part of a collective and how hard it is to have that group fall apart.’

    ‘Ma is satiric about the workplace, in a way that’s less snobbish than Nell Zink but just as funny and imaginative…All the best metaphors in the book are cleverly crafted harbingers…Her dexterity in joking about capitalism rivals the skill of the great Richard Powers.’

    ‘Listen, are we just suggesting Severance to everyone, because everyone in the office read and loved it? Yes, sure. But also, post-apocalyptic novels are perfect crucibles for imagining what happens when the rules we operate under break down.’

    ‘Ling Ma’s novel Severance is an astute combination of workplace novel and apocalyptic tale. Smart and filled with humanity, this debut is one of the year’s best books.’

    ‘A radically understated debut novel…searingly underplayed.’

    ‘Blends two distinct subgenres into a wholly original narrative.’

    ‘Ling Ma delivers a fascinating coming-of-age novel, one full of millennial culture, post-apocalyptic adventures, and, perhaps most exciting of all, a zombie-like populace…Severance wonderfully demonstrates how the lifestyles we lead now can have a great impact on our future.’

    ‘Very frightening…Excruciatingly arresting.’

    ‘Since 2020, a lot of literature has been written about the COVID-19 pandemic, but few books touch on the strange reality of that time as well as Ling Ma’s Severance. a tender subversion of the easily overdone zombie trope. Severance is not just a novel meant to creep its readers out about with the possibility of societal collapse. It is also meant to make us reflect on the things in our lives that truly matter.’

    Other editions ofSeverance
    • Severance
      ISBN: 9781925774139
      3 September 2018
      Buy ebook
    Other Titles byLing Ma