Ling Ma’s severance pay parallels our pandemic and economic system


Shen fever is a fatal respiratory disease that disrupts the nervous system of its victims. Spread by fungal spores, the disease infects a person’s brain and effectively transforms them into harmless zombies that slowly decompose.

But don’t worry, it’s not real.

Shen Fever is the coronavirus (COVID-19) of Breaking, a 2018 novel by Ling Ma that features a story eerily similar to today’s pandemic. Like COVID-19, Shen Fever hails from China, requires public use of face masks, and has wreaked havoc around the world.

Before you start Rupture, I expected the usual fare of post-apocalyptic stories: thrilling life or death situations and running away from the carnivorous undead. Or, maybe something more science and politics focused, like Second World War. However, while reading the book, I was faced with a very different view of the end times.

The novel certainly has moments of suspense as well as ironic satirical humor, but Ma primarily uses her book to present an intimate and brutal look at how human beings can break down both physically and emotionally.

Breaking focuses on Candace Chen, a Chinese-American from New York who spends her days negotiating with frustrating clients as the coordinator of the Bible texts publication. The tale alternates between present and past and constructs the architecture of Candace’s life as a disillusioned workaholic clinging to old memories. Candace’s boyfriend breaks up with her when she doesn’t want to leave with him and give up her job at the company. At this point, the Shen fever spreads, and as the number of infected people increases, millions are leaving New York while Candace stays. Eventually, she meets a group of survivors who are also immune to the disease and travels with them to a shelter dubbed “The Facility” by the group’s leader, Bob.

History is replete with observations of human nature and the tendency of people to stick to their “safe” and comfortable routines. Much of Candace’s motivations revolve around the juxtaposition between her insistence on keeping her job and the ease with which she drifts from place to place. She moves away from her parents’ deaths seemingly quickly (although they still remain in much of her thoughts) and refuses to leave New York with her boyfriend before the pandemic spreads. She spends years at her job although she never received the desired promotion in the arts department.

When she meets the other survivors, she quickly adapts to their social structures but also begins to consider the emotional and mental changes she will need to make in order to survive. While she easily lets go of social and emotional bonds, she struggles to let go of the comfortable uselessness of work.

Like her, zombies are sedentary, moving only to complete menial routines to which they are perpetually stuck until their death. The commentary on the culture of work may be quite exaggerated, but all of the satirical elements of Breaking present a poignant critique of capitalism. Trapped in the many cogs of the economic machine, what must be sacrificed and what must be put on in order to survive? How does capitalism limit us all in inevitable and inevitable cycles?

Ma presents these elements through his characters and their different roles in society. Candace’s boyfriend rejects consumerism and corporate work to pursue art, a choice that falls flat on his morality when Candace internally emphasizes the privilege and idealism of his actions. After all, the decision to abstain from participating in society is only available to those who can afford it. Candace’s more practical view of society reflects the opposite end of the spectrum – complete submission to economic structures and a motivated, task-oriented attitude.

While the other characters respond to Candace’s insistence on working during the pandemic with disbelief, Candace simply states that she has nowhere to go and no one else to turn to, so work is the best opportunity. for her. By including this detail, Ma shows how we came to use work as both a scale of value and a survival mechanism.

Reading Breaking and looking beyond Shen Fever’s cursory comparison to COVID-19, I was struck by how many parallels can be found between the book and our current situation, particularly in how the weaknesses of our society were exhibited. The global pandemic has exposed systemic issues in our country that many of us have been privileged to never understand until now – issues like the lack of social support programs that allow people to take medical leave. to quarantine.

Breaking exposes the problems of capitalism in a different way, highlighting the kind of mental loopholes people go through to rationalize participation in the system. Ma offers no solution in her story; Candace’s actions at the end of the book fix neither their company nor herself. This way, Candace is not doomed, but neither is she absolved. It represents the contradictory nature of existence and the kind of mental and emotional outpouring that occurs when these contradictions meet.

Overall I have found Breaking both enjoyable and stimulating and would definitely recommend reading it.