Book & Bottle pairs books with booze—a surrogate for my fantasy of one day owning a combination bookstore and bar.
I am not the kind of person who likes zombie books, not even when they’re dressed up like Jane Austen à la Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Dystopia of any type is not my go-to genre, reality being dystopian enough for me most days, thank you very much. But rules are made to be broken, and Ling Ma’s excellent debut novel from 2018, Severance, proved that, on occasion, I am in fact precisely the kind of person who likes a good zombie novel set in the dystopia of our recent past.
Given my prejudices, it will not surprise you to learn that what attracted me to the novel in the first place was something other than spending time in the company of the walking dead. Rather, it was the promise of reading a book about work, which was implied in both the title of Ma’s novel as well as the color of its cover—pink, as in slip. I have been trying to write a non-fiction book about work for a few years now, which mostly means I’ve been reading other books about work. My reading list on the subject has veered sharply from the What-Color-Is-Your-Parachute?-type books to fiction, which lately seems to me to do a better job at treating the topic that subsumes the majority of our earthly hours with the imagination it deserves. A line from Severance comes to mind: “When you wake up in a fictitious world, your only frame of reference is fiction.”
But before work: zombies. Or more specifically, the fevered, which is what most of America has become when the novel opens. The fevered—cause unknown, but blamed on spores originating in China—are stuck in a loop of “mimicking old routines and gestures they must have inhabited for years, decades…They could operate the mouse of a dead PC, they could drive stick in a jacked sedan, they could run an empty dishwasher, they could water dead houseplants.” They pose no real threat to the survivors, a fact that the novel’s protagonist and narrator, Candace Chen, points out early in the book to Bob, the aspiring-cult leader of the small band of survivors who rescued Candace semi-conscious from a taxi she stole to get out of New York City. Bob is pontificating about whether their reality is more akin to a zombie or vampire flick—zombie in his estimation since vampire stories are character-driven—when Candace dares to challenge him for the first but not last time. Bob pontificates (and worse) a lot.
The novel slips effortlessly between Candace’s life as a twenty-something in New York City in the runup to the apocalypse and her life as one of the group of survivors dealing with its aftermath. In between slaying zombies—which the survivors do at the end of their supply-collecting “stalks” of the homes of the fevered on the purported ethical grounds of putting them out of their misery—we learn about Candace’s life at work at a book production company call Spectra. There she project manages outsourced-to-China Bible production, a job she fell into through a short-lived romance with the brother of the owner of the company.
Candace, a Visual Arts major and amateur photographer, isn’t particularly enamored of the job, but she is good at it. More than that, she can lose herself in the work.
“I answered emails. I measured spine widths to the exact millimeter. I ordered prototypes of Bibles for clients. I drew up specs for new Bible projects, sent them to the Hong Kong office for an estimate. I calculated the volume and weight of the books to estimate packing and shipping costs. I received a call from an Illinois publisher, and assured their team over speakerphone that the paper for their prayer-book series was indeed FSC certified, without the use of tropical hardwoods. I don’t remember if I took lunch or not.”
Candace’s job reminded me of my twenties, when I spent three years working as a financial analyst at Capitol Records, a deeply unglamorous job with a lot of glamorous trappings, including an office in the iconic tower on Hollywood and Vine. I got enough comp’d tickets to shows to woo my now-husband, but I spent my days in the bowels of Excel macros modeling seasonal variations on CD shipments and returns back in the days when we still had brick and mortar record stores. Like Candace, the terrible and wonderful truth was that I didn’t hate my job. In that job, as in most my jobs, I could find the same flow in mundane tasks as Candace does.
One of the strengths of the novel is how Ma handles such nuances of our relationship to work. Candace’s boyfriend, Jonathan, is a writer who freelances odd jobs to pay his bills and has grown disillusioned with the expense and consumerism of New York. He is a foil to Candace in this way, and although she admires his idealism, she also sees the price he pays. Before he leaves New York for good, Candace thinks but doesn’t tell him, “You think this is freedom but I see the bare, painstakingly cheap way you live, the scrimping and saving, and that is not freedom either.”
Despite the title of the novel, Candace never loses her job. Late in the book we learn that she actually tried to resign after her first year at Spectra, but was talked out it by her boss. She even finishes the lucrative contract she agreed to as the Shen Fever epidemic heightened, a fact she only realizes when she heads to an ATM and finds her account flush with cash from the bonus due on the last day of her contract, November 30, 2011. The catch is that there’s nowhere to spend it anymore. New York has been abandoned.
It turns out that the Severance of the title refers to other types of severance: from China, Candace’s home country; from her parents, who have both died (not from Shen Fever, but from a car crash and dementia, both at a premature age); and from her boyfriend, Jonathan, who left New York just before the fever gets a grip on the city. In the end it is these types of severance that may explain why Candace is spared. Hers is an untethered life, and what little evidence Candace has about the cause of the fever seems to indicate there’s danger in nostalgia, in a longing for a home that no longer exists.
What then to drink while reading Severance? At first I was thinking a Bloody Mary, not just for its ghoulish name but because barring the celery—which I think we can all agree is the least best part of a Bloody Mary—its primary ingredients are things that one might reasonably find in a well-preserved state while raiding the pantries of your fellow citizens who’ve been struck down by Shen Fever. But the thing is, a Bloody Mary needs ice, and ice is hard to come by when the power grid is down.
Which then begs the question of what cocktails taste good at room temperature? Friends, meet Rob Roy, a stiff (pun intended) concoction of whisky, bitters, and sweet vermouth that just happens to be named after a seventeenth-century Scottish outlaw turned folk hero, i.e., exactly the kind of guy you would want around in the wake of an apocalypse—the anti-Bob so to speak. Also, the drink was invented at the bar in the Waldorf Astoria, a few blocks away from Times Square, which was a few blocks away from the Spectra office where Candace worked.
But mostly it’s the room temperature thing. I know because I tested it out and can confirm it tastes good that way and also that you won’t care what the temperature is—or about anything else—after a few sips, which strikes me as the kind of thing that would come in handy in the wake of the apocalypse, even if you’re just reading about one.