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A person exits the subway at an empty Brookfield Place mall in lower Manhattan on March 29, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Discussion questions for ‘Severance’

Our December 2020 pick for Now Read This, the PBS NewsHour’s book club with The New York Times, is Ling Ma’s “Severance.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.

Below are questions to help guide your discussions as you read the book over the next month. You can also submit your own questions for Ling Ma on our Google form.

WARNING: Spoiler alert on questions further down

  1. The novel takes place as a virulent illness is infecting most of the population. While it is a satire, did you see parallels between the effects of Shen Fever on Candace Chen’s world and the COVID-19 outbreak on your own?
  2. Ma writes about a tally of virus victims published on the homepage of The New York Times that was “eventually pulled at the request of government officials, who cited its potential in inciting mass panic.” What was your reaction to this passage?
  3. Did Candace’s corporate book publishing job remind you of any jobs you’ve held in the past? How so?
  4. Why is Candace reluctant to fully pursue her photography passion, and what does this say about work culture in the U.S.?
  5. “Of any book, the Bible embodies the purest form of product packaging, the same content repackaged a million times over, in new combinations ad infinitum,” Candace says in talking about her job. What critiques of capitalism does Ma offer in lines such as this?
  6. Candace imagines a conversation with a business partner in China in which he critiques the way the Americans “negotiate aggressively over pennies” while they “manufacture the emblematic text to propagate your country’s Christian Euro-American ideologies.” What insights does Ma offer about U.S.-China relations?
  7. What do the novel’s flashback scenes reveal about Candace’s immigrant identity?
  8. The “fevered” are described as having a zombie-like quality. Did this book make you think of other works in the zombie genre you’ve seen or read before?
  9. “I’d like us to think about exactly what the internet is,” the group’s leader Bob says at one point. “It’s dead, but what exactly have we lost?” What does Ma’s writing reveal about our relationship with the internet and technology?
  10. Why do you think Ma chose to set the final scenes of the novel in an empty shopping mall?
  11. “To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning,” Ma writes after Candace escapes the Facility. After her career and routine is lost to the Shen Fever, what remains in her life?
  12. What do you think would happen to Candace and her child in a sequel to the story?
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