Manhattan skyline, NYC under dark clouds

Happy Valentine’s Day!! Today is the day when we get closer to our loved ones, share our most special bonds, and rejoice in love, romance, and companionship! So snuggle up to your . . .

What’s that? You don’t have a special someone to snuggle up to?

Well then, snuggle up to your heritage. Or your friends. Or your family. Or your religion. Or your favorite modern city with all its modern culture. Or the handful of people who are still alive—and also not undead—after that recent apocalyptic event. Or endure being alone, because even those people have rejected you, and they’re all jerks or toadies anyway. . . .

In last Wednesday’s blog post, I described the novel Severance, by Ling Ma, as “a fun, fast-paced book.” It is that, very truly. But it’s also artfully and intricately constructed. It’s one of those special books that has easy-to-read sentences, but complex larger themes. It’s like watching Simone Biles make a triple double look easy. All of Ma’s chapters are perfectly landed. As the reader gets deeper and deeper into the novel, more pieces of the puzzle become available, and all of this leads to an astounding picture by the end of the book.

What I’m trying to say is, this book may seem like a simple apocalyptic story . . . but it’s so much more than that. It’s a novel called Severance, and it’s about . . . severance.

The novel is about a young woman of Chinese heritage, living in New York City and entering the workforce. As the novel begins, she is severed from other people in so many ways—as many of us moderns unfortunately are. As an immigrant from a country on the opposite side of the world, and having come to the U.S. at the young age of 6, she is severed from her cultural heritage. She is severed from her extended family, who live in China. She is severed from her parents when she moves to NYC and when they pass away. Modern culture, especially in a big city, encourages a severance from others. And neither is her office job conducive to human closeness. Bibles feature prominently in this novel, but she has no religion.

And then, in one of the first scenes of the novel, the young woman’s boyfriend announces that he is leaving the city. He knows that she will want to stay, and he is right. So she is severed from her single close bond.

And this event is caused by the severance implicit in the fear of death and destruction. Even before the novel’s apocalyptic events occur, the boyfriend fears an apocalypse:

“He said he could see clearly now, could see the future. The future is more exponentially exploding rents. The future is more condo buildings, more luxury housing bought by shell companies of the global wealthy elite. The future is more Whole Foods, aisles of refrigerated cut fruit packaged in plastic containers. The future is more Urban Outfitters, more Sephoras, more Chipotles. The future just wants more consumers. The future is more newly arrived college grads and tourists in some fruitless search for authenticity. . . . Manhattan is sinking. . . . literally and figuratively.” (This last bit, as Ma makes clear, is a reference to global warming.)

So here we have, encapsulated in one young man’s monologue, all our modern fears, all our modern severance from authentic love for each other, ourselves, and our Earth.

The irony is that, in the novel, none of this comes to pass. A different kind of apocalypse ensues—one caused by disease. And the protagonist must endure many more kinds of severance, all the way up to the novel’s dramatic and profound and perfectly landed ending.

Do you feel severed from authenticity?

Hug a loved one today. Or text a friend a photo of flowers. Or smile at a random person in the check-out lane. Good news: the apocalypse is not yet here! This blog post is my Valentine to you. Will you be mine?

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