I can trace the beginning of the end to March 9. On that date, I started receiving last-gasp emails from retail stores that had me on record as a customer. Their messages assured me that Sephora & Nordstrom & PetSmart & Crate&Barrel were keeping their "stores safe and clean for you, our employees, and the community at large." They emphasized that they were upping their "hygiene standards," which had always been a "top priority," and were taking "additional actions to ensure our entire organization is here to serve you in the safest way possible." Because this was "an unsettling time," the companies were "working around the clock to ensure we're able to provide the products and services you need." These messages packaged the language of safety and service together, presenting a reassurance of futurity in phrases such as "we look forward to serving you" and "we are committed to keeping you fully informed as the situation evolves." A few days later, they released another set of emails communicating the shutdown of their physical stores. These messages were also delivered from a place of safety and service: "To do our part in slowing the spread of the virus, we have decided to temporarily close all our stores . . . We remain open and ready to serve you through our apps and online."1

Throughout my pandemic rereading of Ling Ma's Severance, I was struck not only by the prescience of the narrative regarding the spread and effects of the disease, but also by its understanding that capitalism projects signs of its own doom. The novel's protagonist, Candace Chen, walks through an abandoned shopping mall late in the pandemic and observes, "There was Aldo, Bath and Body Works, Journeys, all boasting desperate sale signs typical of the End. Everything was 50 PERCENT OFF, BUY ONE GET ONE FREE, CLEARANCE. The mall must have remained functional up until the End. Though there were vacant storefronts, the other shops were still full of merchandise, covered in dust."2 The seasonal ordinariness of the sales morph into a desperate attempt to unload commodities, a sign of economic collapse. As Ma writes at the beginning of the novel, "The End begins before you are ever aware of it. It passes as ordinary."3 Like the early-COVID emails, the sales promise a combination of service and safety, the spurious generosity of cheaper things coupled with the tacit promise of future use: you won't just need one of these commodities, you'll need two. The functionality of the mall reassures us that we can continue to function as consumers, even in the most desperate of conditions.

There is something comforting in the in-between moments when the possibility of impending disaster has slowed down consumer acts but not yet brought annihilation. Candace describes this delicate calibration when, before the spread of Shen Fever, a superstorm named Mathilde is about to hit New York City: "I was like everyone else. We all hoped the storm would knock things over, fuck things up enough but not too much. We hoped the damage was bad enough to cancel work the next morning but not so bad that we couldn't go to brunch instead."4 The perfect equilibrium of fucked-upness would entail not having to work and being able to enjoy the city, "Like go to the Botanical Garden, the Frick Collection, or something."5 And enjoying the city means spending money. Earlier on, Candace had explained that New York City "lulled you into thinking that there were so many options, but most of the options had to do with buying things: dinner entrées, cocktails, the cover charge to a nightclub. Then there was the shopping, the big chain stores open late, up and down the streets, throbbing with bass-heavy music and lighting."6 The ideal situation of consumer precarity is to be restricted from certain aspects of the capitalist world such as working in an actual office and having access to all the things but still having some of them, like brunch and museums and a few stores. It also means, as Candace fantasizes, new access to "leisure" and the ability to "hit the reset button" and do things "like writing or drawing or something, something other than what we did for money."7

The perfect balance, then, looks like this: the coziness of disaster, combined with temporary suspension of work schedules, topped off with the promise of a minimally endangered consumer economy. Candace presents a layered view of this fantasy when she describes the activities of those with whom she shelters in an abandoned mall, after one of their companions has caught the Fever:

Left to their own devices, the group huddles together in the communal Old Navy on the first floor. At first, I think they're holding a memorial service, but then I hear the TV playing. They're watching DVDs of Friends on a giant, monolithic plasma screen. A citywide blackout forces Monica, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, and Joey to hang out together. They light candles and talk about the weirdest places they've had sex. Phoebe sings a song. I hate Friends but I've seen most of the episodes.

The laugh track reverberates throughout this mostly empty space, echoed by their laughter.8

The survivors find themselves in the mall after full economic and social collapse. They might not be mourning their companion, but they are holding a memorial service for the narrative of comforting disaster presented in Friends.9 The blackout in the episode is transitory enough to allow for confessions and music. The survivors, watching, experience shared nostalgia for when precarity seemed a comforting possibility, when it was still safe and serviceable.

Or consider when Candace stumbles upon the abandoned Juicy Couture flagship shop on Fifth Avenue. In 2011, when the novel is set, Juicy Couture had already come to represent an outdated style, the pastel velour tracksuit trend that would give way to the austere and, in Jia Tolentino's phrasing, "disciplinary" aesthetic of current athletic wear.10 Candace finds a moment of beauty in this vacated retail space:

It looked so pristine that, for a second, I actually thought it was open for business. Many retail spaces had been looted, which was why it was odd that it looked untouched. Not just untouched but immaculate. It was sealed up like an enormous glass time capsule, its racks of trademark velour and terry-cloth sweat suits arranged by color into a candy rainbow.11

The time capsule appeal of the store reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's meditations on the simultaneous modernity and outdatedness of the Paris Arcades conflates the passé fashion of the velour tracksuit with the downfall of consumerism more broadly. The scene is appealing to Candace because it masks the downfall of society as she knows it behind the routine passing of fashion trends, an essential aspect of capitalism. Like the Friends episode, the vitrine provides an imaginary glimpse into the past, with the comfort of minor strains on the consumer economy (blackouts, days off from work, styles that will inevitably be replaced by others). Candace's vision is disrupted by the view of a zombie-like saleswoman who, fevered, folds and refolds clothing although "half her jaw was missing."12

Severance draws from the aesthetics of the classic zombie film, with its fascination with retail spaces as sites of retreat, and even temporary joy, for the living. Starting with George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1979), horror films linked to zombie and other monster-related apocalypses often present scenes of idyllic consumer play.13 Faced with an abundance of commodities after the end of capitalism, human characters indulge in products and experiences that they could not previously afford. In Romero's film, set in an abandoned but fully stocked shopping mall, the survivors consume pricy items from the gourmet food department, dress in furs and other luxurious clothing, and furnish their makeshift dwelling spaces with bourgeois items. This consumer play culminates in a "Bliss Montage" of happy shopping, set to upbeat music.14 Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) features a Bliss Montage in which survivors gleefully shop in an abandoned Budgens supermarket. After seizing pricy whiskey and food, one character says, "You can't just take any crap." Although the characters in Romero's and Boyle's films don't spend money (there's no one to take it), they play at handling it, checking out price tags and offering credit cards. Part of their fun is to enact the dead rituals of capitalism.

Severance gestures to the Bliss Montage but never allows us or its characters to indulge in its pleasures. We find the shell of this trope in the acts of "stalking" in which Candace and the other survivors participate to build up their supplies by seizing goods from homes and stores. But, unlike the playful acquisition experienced in zombie films, stalking is regimented and joyless, divided labor in which each participant can only take the category of thing assigned to them: "Janelle and Ashley worked Craft Services, gathering cooking supplies and shelf-stable products that the moths and pantry rodents hadn't touched. Rachel worked Health, accumulating prescription meds, bandages, aspirins, and skin-care products," and so on.15 We see the demise of the Bliss Montage in the second part of the novel, when the characters make a home for themselves in the mall and Candace, who is pregnant, lives in a Sephora filled with things gathered from an array of stores: Ikea furniture, a queen bed with a Tempur-Pedic mattress, a crib with a musical mobile, a baby swing, and well-garnished bookcases.16 But Candace is a prisoner, held hostage so that she can deliver a baby that will help ensure the future.17

In Severance, the Bliss Montage is stale, a generic last gasp. After Candace tries to stop her coworkers from comparing their situation to a "zombie and vampire flick," one of them responds, "When you wake up in a fictitious world, your only frame of reference is fiction."18 As Dwight Tanner argues, that sentiment expresses a desire for familiarity in books that resonates during COVID. In the novel's view, though, fictions of disaster generate a proleptic nostalgia for capitalism by depicting its potential demise. The joy the characters and viewers derive from the Bliss Montage depends on a fantasy of celebrating the dying breaths of capitalism through reckless consumer acts. And, in doing so, they point to the resilience of capitalism, how it perpetually revives itself by projecting a consumer doom that will never take place. As Fredric Jameson famously writes, "Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. Now capitalism regenerates itself by imagining the end of the world."19

In Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's "Friday Black" (2018), another narrative of consumer doom, the expectation is that Black Friday will be a bloodbath, that the excessive shopping that occurs on the day after Thanksgiving can only be performed with an excess of violence. As shoppers trample and bite each other and injure small children, the narrator, a mall salesperson, notes:

It isn't always like this. This is the Black Weekend. Other times, if somebody dies, at least a clean-up crew comes with a tarp. Last year, the Friday Black took 129 people. "Black Friday is a special case; we are still a hub of customer care and interpersonal cohesiveness," mall management said in a mall-wide memo. As if caring about people is something you can turn on and off.20

Like capitalism, the mall cares for us and kills us at the same time; in fact, it cares for us by slowly killing us, just like the multinational corporations that assured us of our safety while having made our world so unsafe. In Severance, Shen Fever is caused by spores from products manufactured more cheaply in China, supposedly for the benefit of consumers in search of cheaper products. As Jane Hu writes, "The pandemic is not so much racially 'essential' nor nationally 'causal' as it is fundamentally about a global capitalist system that implicates us all."

Ma's novel associates the perniciousness of this system with 9/11, when "how, after it had happened, President Bush told us all to go shopping."21 This encouragement to lose ourselves in retail therapy was inseparable from the United States's initiation of a disastrous global war that continues to engulf us today. We witness a similar dynamic in our time of COVID, when the Trump administration's frenzied calls for "Opening up America Again" purposefully obscures the casualties that the virus has inflicted on BIPOC communities. There can be no bliss when the only available montage is the explicit suturing of consumer play to violence. This interpretation gives new meaning to the recurring phrase "We're all in this together," which has justly received criticism for overlooking the social and racial disparities that COVID has caused and exposed. Unsurprisingly, this phrase has become a rallying cry in email updates from corporations reminding us they're still there.22 Given what consumerism has done to us and our world, it's difficult to determine whether this is a promise or a threat.

Aviva Briefel is the Edward Little Professor of the English Language and Literature and Cinema Studies at Bowdoin College. She writes a lot about the horror film and is currently working on a book on the material culture of spiritualism in the nineteenth century.


  1. I have assembled these quotes from the following emails: Sephora, "Steps We're Taking to Address COVID-19," March 11, 2020; Crate&Barrel, "A Message from Our CEO," March 13, 2020; PetSmart, "Coronavirus Update," March 11, 2020; Delta, "Our Commitment to You During COVID-19 and Always," March 9, 2020; Nordstrom, "A COVID-19 Update from Nordstrom," March 17, 2020.[]
  2. Ling Ma, Severance (New York: Picador, 2018), 164.[]
  3. Ibid., 9.[]
  4. Ibid., 199. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Ibid., 158. []
  7. Ibid., 199.[]
  8. Ibid., 242. []
  9. One of my students last semester informed me that, since the start of the pandemic, Friends has been playing almost nonstop in his family kitchen. He described the comfort of seeing a show in which characters could resolve problems quickly, didn't have cell phones or Internet, and wore clothes that were out of fashion but still recognizable as something "we" might wear.[]
  10. Jia Tolentino, "Outdoor Voices Blurs the Lines between Working Out and Everything Else," New Yorker, March 18, 2019.[]
  11. Ma, Severance, 258. []
  12. Ibid. []
  13. Aviva Briefel, "'Shop 'Til You Drop!': Consumerism and Horror," in Horror after 9/11: World of Fear, Cinema of Terror, ed. Aviva Briefel and Sam J. Miller (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 142-162.[]
  14. I borrow the term "Bliss Montage" from Jeanine Basinger, who uses it to describe the editing sequences used to convey the heroine's brief moments of extreme happiness in the classical woman's film: she frolics with her new beau, goes shopping, travels, gets a makeover, all in the space of a short edited sequence. Jeanine Basinger, A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960 (New York: Knopf, 1993), 8.[]
  15. Ma, Severance, 64. []
  16. Ibid., 267. []
  17. Arguably, the only blissful scene occurs when the characters discover candy machines in the food court, filled with old but still satisfying M&Ms, Hot Tamales, and Skittles that they purchase with the quarters left in the wishing well: "Buoyed by the sugar rush, the mood brightened. We could all feel it, even me. I hadn't had candy like this in forever" (165). By definition, however, a sugar rush cannot last, and the characters continue their purposeful stalking of the mall.[]
  18. Ma, Severance, 29. []
  19. Fredric Jameson, "Future City," New Left Review (May/June 2003): 76. Thank you to my colleague Morten Hansen for reminding me of this quote. Jane Hu also quotes this in her excellent New Republic review of the book: "The Office at the End of the World," New Republic, October 12, 2018. []
  20. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, "Friday Black," Friday Black (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2018), 108.[]
  21. Ma, Severance, 212. []
  22. "We're in this together" was one of the subject headings of Delta's COVID email updates.[]