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The New, the Old and the Obscure 

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The New:
“Severance” by Ling Ma (2018)

As a metaphor about being imprisoned in a maze and banking on the apocalypse to blow a hole in a wall, Ling Ma’s “Severance” is an awesome read, more because the author aims to entertain rather than educate, asking, initially, what if we’re so apathetic we barely notice the end of times? This novel takes risks. Religion, war and politics are big subjects alone. Here they collide to darkly comedic and dramatic effect, though under the surface, guided by a narrator who works a ghost blog after a mysterious illness has left the city nearly empty. The common workplace doesn’t change much amid an apocalypse. Nor do the patterns of people afflicted with the illness, all of whom become zombified and repeat daily activities while flaking away. Perhaps a criticism of current and past political movements that lived on hope and promised change but inevitably proved ineffective, giving rise to what we have now, “Severance” doesn’t try to answer questions or wrap up everything in a bow. Instead, the reader wonders if we might not gain greater clarity about our existence once cut off from the ability to know everything? Or would we grow more violent in the face of starting over?

The Old:
“The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles (1949)

Americans adrift abroad might not seem so connected to the previous novel, but “Severance” and “The Sheltering Sky” work similarly in that the authors immediately place their characters in uncomfortable situations they then try to normalize. Having moved to Tunisia permanently in 1947, after the Second World War, Bowles focused his novels and stories on self-exclaimed intellects out of their element, defeated by their own Western impositions. They represent Americans lost and doomed by their own advances. These characters can travel beyond where they’re welcome, but once they get there, Bowles delves into the conflict created between the mind and landscape and how when people are unable to trust either, they have no choice but to give in. The resulting final scenes are some of the most potent in modern literature. Turned down by his American publisher, Doubleday, “The Sheltering Sky,” was first published in England and later, by New Directions Publishers in New York, where it went on to be a best seller and motion picture.

The Obscure:
“The Memoirs of a Survivor” by Doris Lessing (1974)

Doris Lessing’s 1974 novel, “The Memoirs of a Survivor” is often overlooked given the depth of writing in her previous and most notable work, “The Golden Notebook.” The Nobel Prize winner has noted that her sixth novel is “an attempt at autobiography,” and with that in mind, it’s a fascinating take on how you might interpret your own life. Having been born in Iran and self-educated from the age of 13, Lessing’s prolific career began when she moved to England and began writing politically charged novels and stories that challenged the status quo with a force of language and creativity yet to be read. Here, Lessing puts a literal and figurative wall between the narrator and the outside world that is both physical and internal, purging her memories of the past to understand the present, while caring for a young girl who is swept up in the fury of post-war, apocalypse England. No longer willing to sacrifice her own life for something unknown, the narrator wonders if she was ever capable of such bravery, and do we sometimes mistake the latter for stupidity, and risk our lives for nothing at all?

Much like Ma and Bowles, Lessing asks us to consider the greatest questions in the face of end times: Who are we? What were we? What will we become?

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