Saturday, April 14, 2018

An Excerpt from Ling Ma's Upcoming Cli-fi Novel set for August 2018 release -- SEVERANCE

An Excerpt from Ling Ma's Upcoming Cli-fi Novel set for August 2018 release, 


Maybe it’s the end of the world, but not for Candace Chen, a millennial, first-generation Chinese-American and office drone meandering her way into adulthood in Ling Ma’s offbeat, wryly funny, apocalyptic cli-fi satire, ''Severance.''


Excerpted from Ling Ma’s upcoming book, Severance, out August 2018 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. © Ling Ma
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I hadn’t slept well the night before. I had laid on the cheap bed of my Bushwick studio, listening to the sound of my breath. I thought about the next day at the office, and the day after. Whenever I couldn’t sleep, I would torture myself by creating a completely hypothetical Bible production scenario to troubleshoot. I would calculate the cost of using Swiss Bible paper in place of the Chinese paper that the client insisted we buy, should the latter prove too flimsy to prevent ink from bleeding to the other side, the Psalms obscuring the Proverbs, Matthew contradicting Mark, Peter preempting John. I would estimate the time this theoretical setback would delay the production schedule, then the shipment schedule. I would know that I was alone.
Before the train tunneled underground, my phone buzzed in my tote bag, alight with another text from Jonathan: Leaving Sunday. Talk to me plz.
What if I texted back: I’m pregnant! It’s yrs lolz.
I needed to find a way to break the news. We hadn’t seen each other in a month, the last time being when he had informed me he was moving out of New York. He had texted, called, and emailed a bunch since then. I hadn’t meant to ghost, but it was just easier not to deal with it. Especially since I didn’t know whether I was going to have it.
I put my phone on silent.
I took the J to Canal, where I transferred to the Q up to the Times Square stop. Crowds were thin on the morning commute. When I walked out onto the street, the yellow of the sky had deepened. Its tincture infected everything. Even in Times Square, there was only a slight scattering of tourists. The lobby of the building was empty, except for Manny.
What are you doing here? he said.
I’m going to work.
Wait. Did you check your—
Sorry! I called out, as the elevator doors closed. I wasn’t in the mood to hear cracks about my unusual punctuality. It was 8:44 AM on a Thursday, which, admittedly, was pretty early for me.
The elevator screeched to a standstill. It paused in suspension, emitting a mechanical moan. It always did this between the 26th and 27th floors, some kind of glitch. Then something clicked, and it glided up smoothly to the 32nd floor. I held my breath, willing the doors to open.
They opened to reveal a darkened office floor. Spectra was entombed, blinds drawn across the floor-to-ceiling windows, our cubicles small, silent sarcophagi. A lone beam of light emanated from a bank of offices at my left.
I swiped my key card and opened the door. Hello, I called out.
The light was coming from Blythe’s office. Navigating through the tangled maze of gray cubicles, I found her inside, typing on her computer. The glare of the screen bounced off her straight, equine features, her long, blond hair pulled back in a low ponytail.
Hey, she said, not looking up. Can you believe this shit?
What shit?
The email that they sent out this morning, at like six. The office is closed. There’s a major storm advisory. You didn’t check your work email?
No, I said, feeling guilty. Why are you here?
This is what I get for breaking my phone, she said, almost to herself. She looked up. There’s going to be a storm. Here. She swiveled around her computer screen toward me, and googled ny weather. There was a superstorm warning for the entire tri-state area. A Category 3 hurricane, named Mathilde, was closing in. Certain train lines would be closed in the afternoon. Flash floods were expected in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan.
The mayor had held a press conference earlier that morning. Blythe played the video: New Yorkers, he said, in front of a bank of microphones. Our job here in the mayor’s office is not to alarm you, but it is to prepare for the worst. The fact is, while we have our emergency services on standby, we may be stretched beyond capacity tonight. Please—
Anyway, Blythe said, swiveling the screen back toward her, I’m going to get some files and take them home. She looked me up and down. You might think about doing the same.
She opened up her file cabinets, rummaging around for proofs. Locating the project folder, she spread out the proofs across her desk. The proofs were for New York Mirror, a compilation volume of New York photographers.
Splayed out on her desk was a Nan Goldin photograph, Greer and Robert on the Bed, NYC. I could recognize it on sight.
I love Nan Goldin, I said, lingering in the doorway. She was my favorite artist when I was a teenager.
Blythe glanced up. Maybe you can take a look at this proof, give me a second opinion.
Sure, I said, uncertain whether she was asking me out of courtesy or because she genuinely wanted a second opinion. Blythe was hard to read in that way, like a WASP version of Kourtney Kardashian.
Do the colors look off to you? Blythe asked. She turned on the color-correcting lamp. A woman lying down next to a man, clutching her wrist as if measuring its thinness. He was looking away, beyond the frame. They were bathed in the warm, yellow light of the room. She was in love with him; he didn’t seem to care.
I don’t know, I finally said. It’s supposed to be a warm image, isn’t it?
Look. Blythe indicated the woman’s arms, her neck. Doesn’t this look weird?
It took a moment for me to see what she was saying. The flesh tones are off, I confirmed. There’s maybe too much “Y” in the CMYK.
Good. She produced her proofing pencil and marked it up with satisfied, incisive lines. She turned the proofs, page by page. More than the other Art Girls, Blythe had a sharp, exacting eye.
Take a seat, she said, not looking up.
I rolled someone’s desk chair into her office, and she produced another proofing pencil for me as I sat down beside her. We slowly paged through the images, images by Peter Hujar, David Armstrong, Larry Clark, marking up repro imperfections.
There were other Nan Goldin photographs, her earlier work taken in the 70s and 80s. They were all of her friends; they existed on highly emotive planes, socializing in cars and on beaches, posturing at good-bad parties, picnicking chaotically, cleansing themselves in milky baths, sexing and masturbating and visiting one another in hospitals, lit up by the bald glare of the camera flash. When they laughed, they threw their heads back to reveal crooked, yellowed teeth. The city back then was almost bankrupt. Day and night seemed indistinguishable, the dividing line between them membranic. The party spectacles gave way to hospital scenes gave way to funeral tableaux. The AIDS epidemic seemed to strike overnight.
I first encountered Nan Goldin’s photographs when I was a teenager, and hoarded a copy of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency under my mattress. So many of the people depicted seemed freakish or other in some way; they didn’t fit in. But that didn’t matter, the photographs seemed to say. What mattered was, they styled and remade themselves in the way they wanted to be seen. They inhabited themselves fully. They made me want to move to New York. Then I’d really be somewhere, I had thought, inhabiting myself.
We went through all the proofs, marking up color corrections.
Thanks for helping, Blythe said.
No problem. I thought Lane was working on this title, though.
Lane’s taking a leave of absence.
Oh. I looked at her, waiting for her to say more.
Blythe paused, choosing her words carefully. Lane is sick. She’s, uh, fevered.
Wait, really? I searched Blythe’s face for a reaction.
Yeah, it’s pretty shocking, Blythe said with feigned nonchalance. But her voice caught, and she looked away.
I’m sorry. You never think this kind of thing happens to anyone you know.
It’s happened to a lot of people, Candace, Blythe corrected me. But with Lane, it’s really surprising. Lane wore her mask everywhere. After her neighbor was found fevered, she had her apartment sprayed with that antifungal treatment all the time. She took every precaution, and still it didn’t... Blythe swallowed, trailed off. She undid her smooth, sleek ponytail and then redid it. She checked her phone. Think I need to get going. Better get home before the storm starts.
Yeah, me too, I echoed. Do you want to split a cab?
She hesitated. I was just going to take the subway. They’re not shutting down for another few hours.
Somewhere in the office, a phone was ringing.
Would you get that, please? she asked, gathering up the proofs in her bag.
I left Blythe’s office and went toward the ring, grappling through the maze of cubicles. It led me all the way to the other end of the floor and back to my office. It was my phone. Someone was calling me.
Spectra New York. This is Candace.
Finally, you pick up, Jonathan said.
I paused. I guess you really wanted to get a hold of me.
I called Spectra and punched your last name in the directory. I was worried.
The light went off in Blythe’s office. She had put on a trench coat and was walking out the glass doors to the elevator bank. I could hear the rain on the windowpanes. Suddenly, the rain intensified so drastically that the pane shook. On the streets below, tourists in white sneakers and Crocs scattered.
There’s going to be a storm, he added.
I heard. I was about to leave.
Can I stay over at your place? The landlord says my basement needs to be evacuated in case of flooding.
In the distance, I heard the elevator doors ding as Blythe left. I envied her free time, her evening of carefree plans. I needed to tell Jonathan my news. I couldn’t put it off forever.
OK, come over, I finally said.
It was early evening by the time Jonathan came over. All day, it had been raining intermittently. After I buzzed him up, I listened to his footfalls echoing up the staircase and through the hallway, heavy and careful, as if treading a bridge that might give way.
I waited for a few beats before opening the door.
Hey, he said. He was wearing his one nice shirt, a button-down plaid needled with rain. And, I couldn’t help it. My heart barked confusedly with love.
With mannered formality, he placed a pair of tidy, whiskery pecks on each side of my face, leaving behind an unfamiliar citrusy aftershave scent.
Hey, I echoed. You smell like a men’s magazine.
Where do I put this? he asked, indicating the white mug in his hand. It was his overnight retainer, soaking in green mouthwash. He held the mug level, by the handle, his palm over the top. He’d walked from his apartment to the station and boarded the train this way.
I shrugged. Wherever you want.


Maybe it’s the end of the world, but not for Candace Chen, a millennial, first-generation American and office drone meandering her way into adulthood in Ling Ma’s offbeat, wryly funny, apocalyptic cli-fi satireSeverance.

Ling Ma was born in Sanming, Communist Red China ....and grew up in Utah and Kansas. A graduate of the Univeristy of Chicago, she is the author of Severance, forthcoming from FSG in Summer 2018. She holds an MFA from Cornell University, where she also taught memoir and creative writing. Her fiction and writings have been published in GrantaChicago ReaderNinth Letter and ACM, among others.

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