If Ling Ma’s debut novel seems at all familiar, she’s carefully calibrated that feeling: it’s an apocalypse novel that could be happening right now. (It’s not for nothing that it’s actually set in the recent past.) The “fevered” zombies’ routines are commonplace: setting dinner tables, folding shirts, wandering name-brand stores, but with the added benefit of quicker-than-average bodily decay. It’s funny except when it’s horrifying; it’s horrifying except when it’s oddly comforting. That ambivalent tonal mixture is just one piece of what makes Ma’s writing so unique and captivating. Severance rushes forward on information overflow—on the ins and outs of collector’s edition Bible production, on the lives of Chinese immigrants in late-80s Utah, and on the name brands we all know and love-hate—because if that rush stopped, would we all fall into zombified oblivion too?
On one hand, I could praise Ottessa Moshfegh for the risks she takes: the confidence to frame her novel around such a decidedly sedentary character, the flamboyant discussion of bodily sensations (or drugged lack of sensation), and the gall to set the novel at perhaps the most eerily pregnant moment in New York City history. On the other hand, I could praise her for her unbelievable sense of humor -- she should receive some kind of medal for creating Dr. Tuttle, “the only psychiatrist to answer the phone at eleven at night on a Tuesday”, whose every sentence is a bizarre punchline. Instead, I’ll praise her for deploying those tools, as caustically she does, for a most unique, hard-won sense of empathy. I was not prepared for how emotionally overwhelming this book would become, and I’m left even more amazed than before by Moshfegh’s quickly growing collection of masterworks.
The Shades is a great little pressure cooker of a novel—an ideal literary thriller. It springs a mysterious death-by-falling on you in the first pages and slowly, calculatedly brings back to the root of the event until everything becomes clear. Well, not everything. The best thing about this book is its daring lack of resolution, as powerful an evocation of dispersed familial grief as they come. Fans of Ali Smith’s The Accidental will find this a powerful warp on its portrait of a family ravaged, and hopefully built back up, from within and without.