The only reason I agreed to read another pandemic book was becuase I totally trust my friend Lisa Marie Cabrelli, who is a writer, academic, and adventurer. She told me I would love it, and she wasn’t wrong. Holy moly. There was so much to talk about.
BTW – you cannot talk about this book without talking about the end. Lisa Marie and I had totally different interpretations. But I also don’t want to spoil the end for you. So I moved that part of the conversation to the very end, and added a warning so you know when to hit the pause button if you don’t want to hear that part.
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Lisa Marie Cabrelli on “Severance” by Ling Ma
Hello, Bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and on today’s episode I’m talking to my brilliant and talented friend. Lisa Marie Cabrelli. Lisa Marie is an author, entrepreneur, academic and adventurer. Currently she is writing novels, creating courses and finishing a PhD, while dreaming of her pre-pandemic, digital nomadic life. If you’ve listened to this show, even once you probably, we already know that I’m not a fan of pandemic stories. So I was a little bit freaked out when Lisa Marie told me that “Severance” by Ling Ma is the Best Book Ever. I read it anyway because I trust her and we had an incredible conversation about it, but I have to warn you with a book like this, you really can’t avoid talking about the ending. As it turned out, Lisa Marie and I had totally different interpretations about what happens at the end of Severance. I want you to hear a conversation, but I don’t want to ruin it for you. So, I moved that part of our talk to the end of the podcast, and I will let you know when it’s coming, so you can skip it if you aren’t a fan of spoilers.
Whether they read a book a day or a book a year. I love asking people to tell me about their favorite books. And that includes you dear listener. What’s your all-time favorite? Your desert island classic? What about the childhood favorite that you still know by heart? The mystery that took you by surprise, the biography that changed your way of thinking, or the book club favorite that you can’t stop thinking about? I’m looking for guests from all walks of life to talk to me about it all kinds of books here on the show. Go to my website, Juliewroteabook.com and click on the button that says “Be a Guest on the Best Book Ever.” I’m really looking forward to talking to you! Now, back to the show.
Julie Strauss Hi, Lisa Marie, welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Lisa Marie Cabrelli: Hi Julie. Thanks for having me.
JS: Many moons ago, when we first discussed you coming on this podcast, you said you didn’t want to do it, because you know me very well and you thought your favorite book would scare me too much.
LMC: That’s right.
JS: Then you changed your mind – to a different book, which is about a pandemic. Explain yourself.
LMC: Yes. Okay. So, I will explain myself. My favorite book ever is a popular fiction book. The Stand by Stephen King. It is really, really, really long. And so not only is it scary, but it’s really long and I didn’t want you to have to read it right now, in the middle of a pandemic. But I am a huge lover of dystopian fiction. And I also am a huge lover of literary fiction. And so I thought I would give you a little bit of the best of both worlds, which is why I picked the book I picked.
JS: Why do you like dystopian so much?
LMC: I really don’t know. I knew you were going to ask me that question and I thought, how am I going to answer this? And I just don’t know. There must be some kind of weird, psychological thing that I’m suffering from that I always go to dystopian fiction, but I love it. I love dystopian films as well. Love it.
JS: Is it a thing where you put yourself in a situation and decide how you would survive? Is that part of the appeal of it?
LMC: No, I think probably part of the appeal is the people. I’m really, really interested in people in relationships. And I think that dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction really puts people in these environments where relationship becomes the key thing to examine. I like romantic comedy and stuff like that too, for that same reason. But it’s not the same as when you’re put into this environment. How does it impact you as a human and how does it impact you with your relationships with other humans? I am not exclusively a dystopian fiction reader. I will read the back of a cereal box if I have nothing to read. I will read any book that you had to me. I don’t care if it is trash or classical literature. I just don’t care. So it’s not exclusively dystopian. It’s just one of the genres. I’m not a genre loyalist. It’s just one of the genres I particularly enjoy, but, , I read every other genre so I could, but I could read dystopian after dystopian. They don’t exhaust me.
JS: Okay. That’s the key right there, because they exhaust me. So I wonder what’s the difference in the brain that makes it so physically exhausting for some and not others?
LMC: But do you think that Severance, which is the book we’re going to talk about, do you think that’s really about the end of the world? Because I don’t think it is. And that’s maybe why it didn’t exhaust me.
JS: What do you think it’s about?
LMC: Well, it’s about so many things. It’s, it’s one of the most genre-crossing books I think I’ve ever read. It’s also a meditation on the human existence of right now in the midst of this capitalist, politically divided, cynical world that we live in. So it’s a deep meditation on life. Where we are and what we are and are not doing about it. That’s what I thought.
JS: Tell us the plot of this book.
LMC: So the plot of the book is, you have Candace Chen, who is, really importantly, an immigrant to the United States. She came to the United States from China when she was six.Her parents were, well, her mother was desperate to go back to China. Her father was a classic American immigrant, right? So she’s, first-generation American, and, she is probably about 30. I mean, I don’t think they ever say her age. She works in production for a publishing company and she actually works in the Bible department. So, she is responsible for the project management of the production of Bibles. And she is working in this sort of semi-dead-end job with her sort of semi-dead-end boyfriend in her sort of semi-dead-end life. When a bacterial virus gets carried across from the manufacturing facilities of China, across the world, globally. Specifically, into New York city, where she lives. Slowly, or maybe not so slowly, I guess, everyone around her begins to die, but in a really, truly unique way. What the virus does is it makes somebody what they call “fevered.” These fevered people actually revert to repetition and routine. As they get fevered, they lose their cognizance and they just start repeating activities that are extremely familiar to them over and over and over and over again until basically they rot and die. So, in the beginning of the book, Candace has already actually escaped New York. And she is with a group of escapees or survivors who are led by this really ridiculous man called Bob. And they’re headed to what he calls the facility, which he thinks is a safe zone where they can sort of live out this post-apocalyptic nightmare. There’s so many elements that were super interesting to me. Right. The one thing that I really got sucked up in, and I want to ask you – really there’s so many questions I want to ask you, Julie, about what you think. But, one of the questions I got sucked up in is this idea of routine and repetition. It’s a real solid theme throughout the book, not just amongst the fevered, but amongst everyone who’s alive. Right? I mean, Candace herself, she doesn’t do anything outside of her routine. I mean, I don’t know how many times Ling Ma wrote the line in the book, “I got up, I went to work.” It must be in there 20 times. So, although routine and repetition is the thing that actually kills the fevered in the end, it kind of says to me, well, isn’t that the thing that kills everyone in the end? Aren’t we already living in this capitalistic society? I mean, how many brand names does she mention in this book? Right? I mean, brand is a huge thematic principle of it as well. This idea that all we care about is consumption and the reason we participate in these routines and this repetition is just so that we can continue to consume until we die. Right? So, I I’m fascinated by this idea that we are both fevered and unfevered. Even the unfevered are fevered. One of the things that people are really, really frightened of is change. Really frightened of change. And in order to make change, you have to make choices. And you see very clearly in this book, how few choices, actual choices, people really make. This routine and this repetition, it’s this lure of having something to do so that you don’t have to think for yourself about what you should do differently.
JS: We’re – I, in particular – I’m making it sound very bleak. But I have to say, I probably should’ve said this at the beginning: I laughed out loud many times. I thought it was an incredible trick. There was one line at the beginning where the band of sort of, I don’t know that you’d call them refugees, but these survivors who have banded together and are raiding all of the houses looking for supplies and they’re debating where to go. And the one woman goes, I’m not going to live in the suburbs.
LMC: It’s funny all the way through. One of the lines that got me in the beginning, it’s probably in the same conversation, is when she’s talking about Bob. And how he has his arm in a sling from carpal tunnel syndrome. We’re in the middle of this pandemic and this doofus guy, who’s some nerdy I.T. guy has carpal tunnel syndrome.
JS: The other line that I underlined: “The sheer density of information and misinformation at the end, encapsulated in news articles and message boards, theories, and clickbait traps that had propagated hysterically through retweets and shares, had effectively rendered us more ignorant, more helpless, more innocent in our stupidity.” God. Damn.
JS: Because how many times in the last year have you said that? I say that out loud almost every day, Why are we all so stupid?
LMC: Right? Why is nobody listening?
JS: And yet all we do is consume things and information. And yet we are so dumb.
LMC: Are we dumb or are we divided?
JS: I think we’re dumb. I think we don’t understand how to process information. I think we don’t understand how to parse what’s true and untrue. We are literally debating what is true with our neighbors. That to me is the dumbest conversation you can have.
LMC: No, I’m in 100% agreement with you. Absolutely.
JS: This reminded me a bit of Station Eleven, and I thought you kind of disagreed with me.
LMC: Yeah, I do, because I don’t think Station Eleven is it is a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel necessarily either. I mean, I know it’s been put in that particular genre, but, I don’t know. I think I think the one element that connects the two books is this idea of nostalgia, the danger of nostalgia. I think there’s a line in Station Eleven where the main girl, the young girl who’s in a theater company, one of them asks her, how can you not be nostalgic? How can you not be thinking about the way that life was before? And she says something like, the younger you were, the less you remember, the better off you are. Because you don’t remember what life was like before. And so therefore you cannot be nostalgic. And I was thinking, in Severance, if people just would give up on what was before, maybe they wouldn’t get fevered. Everyone, I mean, even Bob going to the mall, it’s the most – this facility, when he’s talking about in the beginning, you think he’s bought it. You’re thinking he’s one of these preppers who has this underground facility.
JS: Yeah. That’s exactly what I thought. Some sort of nuclear fallout shelter or something.
LMC: Yeah. And it’s the mall. Right, but he’s nostaligic for that. He can’t make any choices to move forward. He can’t think of something different because the mall is what he, to him, represents the kind of life that he wishes he was still living. I mean, don’t you ask yourself throughout the whole entire book, why is everybody staying with Bob? Because he’s convinced them he can lead them to safety. To get back to greatness.
JS: So is there any good function of nostalgia? And I’m interested to hear your response to this because you are a digital nomad. You are a person who moves around a lot, and who’s very intentionally not attached to places and possessions. So, I’m super curious what your take on nostalgia is.
LMC: Well, I’m also an immigrant, as well, and I thought that was another interesting aspect of the book was the immigrant aspect of it. I know this book represents nostalgia is a really bad thing. And I don’t agree with that. But, it’s also a really bad thing to have no nostalgia, to be totally and completely focused on the future. And I think it’s really interesting that a Chinese immigrant with experience in China wrote a book that was so unfocused on the future. There’s no future in this book at all.
JS: And did you notice that that was the only place where her writing really was lush was when she was describing the nights in China? Because that’s where all the senses are for her, the smell and the feel of the air of China from her childhood is the only thing she really conjures up with any pleasure.
LMC: However, she has the immigrant version of nostalgia.
JS: Tell me what that means.
LMC: I think that growing up as an immigrant in the US, I had a deep sense of nostalgia for how I grew up in a small farming town in the South of England. And I wanted it to be exactly what it was when I grew up there. The first time I went back was 10 years later. And it wasn’t anything like what I remembered. I didn’t have any consistent experience there, so I didn’t get to watch it change. And she was the same. She didn’t go back to China until she started this job in her twenties. So again, probably 10, 15 years after she’d been to China. And I think you recognize that that nostalgia is painted by, I guess, childhood, You have a different perspective on things when you’re a kid.
JS: I know people who have lived in the same city their entire life, and when they go to their childhood homes, they’re always stunned that it’s so small. So what about moving countries makes it a more profound experience?
LMC: Well, because you miss the cultural changes, right? You miss not just how things have changed very specifically and individually for you, but how things have changed for the whole entire country. And also how your perspective on the country is a foreigner’s perspective. I was really surprised when I came back to the UK for the first time that I wasn’t really British anymore. I was American.
JS: Do you think of yourself as an American now?
LMC: I have been a digital nomad since 2012. Which is nearly 10 years. And live now in Scotland and Europe and the States. I would consider myself just kind of a mish-mash. However, I cannot escape my really, really American personality traits. And they are extremely obvious, still, in the UK, just as my UK personality traits are very obvious when I’m in America.
JS: So you never really fit anywhere. Perfect. What are the obvious ones when you’re in Europe? What sets you apart?
LMC: I am very straightforward. I mean, honestly, I sometimes see British people who are not straightforward at all. I sometimes realize I’ve been to American when I say something. I state my opinions. I don’t hold back. I tell the waiter when I’m not happy with the service. I mean, not in an obnoxious way. I’m very nice person. But I’m just saying that sometimes, where my husband will be like, oh, it’s okay, we can just leave, you know, thank you very much, that was all lovely… I’m not like that. I remember we were out with our big group of Scottish friends and one of our friends said something to me, like you’re just so open. I think that’s a very American thing. I’m not reserved, like British people are.
JS: So what sets you apart when you are in the States?
LMC: I’m too reserved.
JS: Oh God. You can’t get it right in either place.
LMC: And I think that that is kind of where Candace will never fit in anywhere in this book because she already knows that she can’t fit anywhere. I mean, Candace stays on in a dying city for a year because they have promised her a bonus that would make her parents proud.
JS: Her job is in the Bible division of this publisher. And she even says it is the ultimate remarketing campaign. It is literally the exact same item being repackaged over and over again. She has one client who wants a gemstone Bible and another client who wants this kind of cover, but it’s the exact same content. She’s a factory worker.
LMC: She is. Do you remember when she sends an email to her equal in China, at the factory? She sends this guy a note and she says, I really want you to give me a quote on this job. And he basically comes back and says, everybody’s dead. And she won’t give up! She goes back and she sends them another note. She says, well, yeah, I understand everybody’s dead, but come on, you have to be good at your job and you have got to give me a proposal. I mean, this is why this book is so funny. And the guy basically comes back and says, Look, here’s my advice. Your job is not important. What you do is not important, nothing right now in your life is important. You must leave wherever you are and go somewhere safe. You’re a factory worker just like me. And that’s what I’m talking about when I’m talking about this whole lack of choice. She doesn’t choose to stay to get the bonus. She doesn’t choose that she does. She just chooses to not do anything. She just chooses to just keep going. Even leaving New York. She doesn’t make that choice. Right? She basically finds out that she can’t get back into her building because she locks herself out. She forgets her keycard and she can’t make that choice. The only choice she makes in the entire book – well, actually she makes two choices. She makes one in the very beginning. When she realizes how sucky her job is, and she decides to leave it, she goes to Bendel’s and she sees that all of the lingerie in the lingerie section is made in China. And it’s very illuminating for her. All of a sudden, she’s like, wait a minute. Nothing’s ever going to change. So why should I?
JS: What are you supposed to come out of this with?
LMC: I think you’re supposed to come out of this exactly the way that I came out of it, which is desperate to just talk to somebody about these ideas. I think it’s just the post to make you think and really ponder on whether or not you are Candace.
JS: Which I think the book is saying we all are.
LMC: We all are. Absolutely. I mean, it’s right there. The fevered kill themselves with routine. Well, that’s the other thing I wanted to ask you about Julie? How did you feel about Bob killing the fevered?
JS: Okay. That was so complex.
LMC: He is your classic, mediocre white man, right? Who, in this event, happens to have the confidence of a mediocre white man who doesn’t know anything about anything, and wants to take them to a mall, but everyone follows him because he’s a mediocre white man. Who’s telling them that. Don’t we do that all the time?
JS: We’ve elected a whole hell of a lot of them as presidents.
LMC: And why do they stay? I mean, that’s the question that kept on my mind the whole time. Why do they stay day? Because number one, nobody in this book is good with making choices. No one can act on a choice. And number two, because he’s the mediocre white man who’s showing confidence. I don’t think he was fevered. I think his reason was power and that he could. He killed him because he could, and he could moralize it to himself. That it was the right thing to do. And so therefore, hey, it’s pretty fun to shoot people in the head when I’ve always had a gun and wanted to shoot. People want to have power. Even though I’m a dude who probably has never had sex with anybody, right. Hey, I’ve got a gun and I can’t use my penis, might as well use my gun.
JS: I will never get over how we can laugh so hard at this book about this.
LMC: What do you think was the scariest moment? I’m wondering, cause I have one.
JS: The housewife constantly setting the table. Because, obviously, that one hit very close to home. Maybe I already am fevered. I already do dishes every night.
LMC: Oh God. That’s funny.
JS: What’s your scariest part?
LMC: It was when the elevator breaks.
JS: Oh my God. Yes.
LMC: Cause it makes you think about all the things that we’re dependent upon that we forget.
JS: Everything she owned was already moved into that office.
LMC: Her whole life was inside because she’s literally severed again from everything. Severance was such a good name for the book too. It’s like, she’s severed from her home country. She gets severed from her life in New York. She gets severed from her job. She’s severed from her boyfriend. It’s just the message throughout the whole entire thing. And did you know that Ling Ma wrote this while she was living on her severance package?
JS: No, that is so good.
LMC: Yep. She got laid off and all of her friends encouraged her to take the time that her severance package payment allowed her, and finish her novel. And so she did.
JS: good for her. I hope she keeps going. I hope she’s writing another one.
LMC: Me too, I think she’s fabulous.
JS: Lisa Marie, tell me what you’re reading these days.
LMC: When I look at my books, there is a huge number of Tana French in my bookshelf because I did a master’s degree in crime fiction. And for me, I love the people who can make that real connection between popular genre fiction and the literary feel of a book. And Tana French does that with crime fiction. It’s literary crime fiction. It’s beautifully written. It’s one of those books that, as my husband doesn’t read fiction, it’s one of those books that I have to keep putting the book down and saying, wait, can I just read you this couple of sentences? Because it’s so beautiful.
JS: Just a couple of weeks ago, I had a crime fiction writer named Aimee Austin on, and she also highly, highly recommended Tana French to me. So, this is two people I really trust who have told me I need to. Okay, so I’m doing this. I have one of her books. I have The Witch Elm here.
LMC: Oh, that’s one of my favorites. That’s another one that, when you read and you’re done, you’ll want to call me up and say, let’s talk about this book. Because that one had some really, really great thematic elements that you won’t stop thinking about as you’re reading it.
JS: All right. You’ve got yourself a date. I’ve got you penciled in for a phone call to talk about The Witch Elm.
LMC: It’s a big one. A thick one, but it’s good.
JS: Yeah. It looks like a good one to dive into over a weekend. Lisa Marie, where can my listeners find you?
LMC: If they’re interested in pictures of my travels, which will be commencing in a few weeks, they can find me on Instagram. And if they’re more interested in my nerdy knowledge management Roam Research stuff, they can follow me on Twitter. And if they’re interested in reading my romcoms, they can find me at my website.
JS: I want to thank you for joining me today. I knew this was going to be a fantastic conversation and I hope you’ll come back anytime you have a book you want to talk about.
LMC: Oh, I always want to talk about books, so I will.
JS: Hi, friends just popping in to let you know that for the remainder of the podcast, we will be talking about the end of Severance. So, if you’re not a fan of spoilers, hit the pause button, go finish the book, (I know you want to,) and then come back and listen to the end.
LMC: So the only choice she actually makes is leaving the facility. And my question is, does she really make that choice? Or, is she fevered and is she trying to get back to her routine? That’s what she wants. She wants to be in the city. It’s this constant pull back to your routine so that you don’t have to make decisions. Candace never makes decisions. Right? The reason she’s in her job is because somebody gave her that job. The reason she doesn’t go with her boyfriend when he says he’s leaving New York is not because she’s making a choice, it’s just because she’s not making a choice. So she just finds this whole idea of repetition so comfortable. So is Candace fevered or is she, is she not?
JS: Oh, my God. I never even thought of it that way.
LMC: I mean, she’s not literally fevered in the book. But the question I want to ask you is if we can talk about the end? In my mind, the ending, which everyone is so confused about, it’s like, for me, as soon as I closed the book, the first time I read it, it was so clear that Candace is now fevered. As soon as she left the facility she is fevered. You can tell. She gets out of the car and she just starts walking towards the city because that’s the routine she knows. That’s where she feels safe. She can’t make any other choice.
JS: I did not read it like that. Oh my God. Okay. Hang on. Hang on. I have to catch my breath. No, that was not what I read. So you think that, because the car broke down and she just, sort of blindly got out and kept walking?
JS: Now see, I saw it as, because she has no attachment at all – literally, she has no parents anymore. She has no real country where she feels at home. And so she was able to just walk away from this relatively safe facility. I mean, Bob was a crazy person, but it was a safe place. They had food, they had shelter, they had an entire mall. And she had no attachment to it or no need to be around them or no need to stay in her – where was she staying?
LMC: In the L’Occitaine.
JS: She’s so rootless that she could walk away from it. I thought she was not subject to the fever. Because there was the one woman who was fine until she went to her childhood home and saw her closet. And then she became fevered. I kept thinking, Candace is never going to fall for it. This is never going to happen to her. She’s completely severed. That was the word that was on every page. To me, she’s just severed from everything and everyone. So I thought she’s going to remain unfavored forever because she’s so completely rootless and unattended.
LMC: And I think that that is a perfectly reasonable and sensible way of looking at it. I mean I could go that way as well. But I got stuck again on this idea of nostalgia. It seems like the disease might be in you, in people, but sometimes it gets triggered by nostalgia. But it’s not nostalgia for a time it’s actual actually nostalgia for a place. Because Ashley, she doesn’t get fevered until she goes back to her childhood home. And Bob doesn’t actually get fevered until he goes back to the mall. But the two, and I mean, I may be going way out on a limb here, but this is, what was running through my mind is that those two examples that we got in the book of nostalgia triggered fever were both of people returning to a place that has extremely bad history for them. We learned that Ashley’s parents were horrible and that she had no childhood. Her only refuge was in her closet, amongst her prom dresses or whatever it was.And for Bob, his only refuge was escaping from his abusive household and wandering the mall. So those are the two examples that we get. And I kept thinking along your lines, well, Candace’s never going to get triggered because she has no bad place to go back to. Because actually, the only nostalgia she really experiences in the whole entire book is full China, right? That was her refuge, the first six years of her life. And because we find out very clearly that when she’s six and she moves to the United States, that her mother is a completely different person who doesn’t know her anymore. Right. And she never has a relationship. But Candace brings her mother back at the end of the book for a really long time, right before she leaves the facility. So is Candace actually, is her nostalgia, her bad place, this relationship with her mother that actually gets resolved during that time in, in the facility? I mean, I am deep into research right now for a creative writing PhD. So I’m reading all kinds of theory and stuff. And, this is the whole concept of the death of the author. Which is that Ling Ma has given this to us as readers, and the meaning making happens within ourselves. And so we can make the book, whatever we want it to be. So your perspective is no more right or wrong than mine, or Joe Smith from down the block. But that’s what’s so great about this book is that there are so many things to think about and to talk about.
Thanks for listening, Bookworms. For more information on this episode and links to all the books we discussed, go to our website. You can also follow us on Instagram. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me on Instagram. Remember, whenever you are book shopping, help support indie bookstores and this podcast by using my affiliate link at Bookshop. Their mission is to support local, independent bookstores, nd if you shop using my link, I’ll get a small percentage of your purchase at no extra expense to you.
Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library.