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August 14, 2018

Ling Ma's Playlist for Her Novel "Severance"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Ling Ma's novel Severance is an astute combination of workplace novel and apocalyptic tale. Smart and filled with humanity, this debut is one of the year's best books.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A biting indictment of late-stage capitalism and a chilling vision of what comes after . . . [Ma] knows her craft, and it shows. [Her protagonist] is a wonderful mix of vulnerability, wry humor, and steely strength.... Ma also offers lovely meditations on memory and the immigrant experience. Smart, funny, humane, and superbly well-written."

In her own words, here is Ling Ma's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Severance:

Severance is an apocalyptic office novel. It features Candace Chen, who works as a production coordinator of Bible manufacture as the world comes to an end. The Bibles, considered a labor-intensive product, are produced by suppliers in China. Although she works out of New York, the novel and Candace’s story spans Hong Kong, New York, Fuzhou, Shenzhen, and Salt Lake City. Similarly, I listened to a pretty wide-ranging mix of tracks (albeit almost all American) while writing this novel. I needed a good beat to keep the rhythm of my sentences, and to give the narrative energy. I also tried to find songs that tapped into emotions that informed the scene at hand. This is an incomplete playlist.

“Dark Fantasy,” Kanye
Sometimes my taste isn’t all that different from that of 20-year-old frat boys. But I love the maximalist emotional approach on this album: anger tempered by flashes of humor, sadness cut by bravado. Writing from Candace’s point of view, I wanted to capture that multiplicity. The energy on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is so infectious, its puns so sharp, that it jumpstarted a lot of my writing at the time.

“I Get Nervous,” Lower Dens
That ticker-tape guitar captures the anxious frequency of living in New York. The Lower Dens are fronted by Jana Hunter. Her solo work, particularly “Vultures” reminds me of my time living in New York, back when Cake Shop (rip) was still open.

“Fake Empire,” The National
When you’re single and you live in New York, that moment before the dusk comes and it’s dinnertime but you haven’t invested in making anything. Through the windows of surrounding buildings, everyone around you is making dinner. They have out their bags of rhubarb and veggies from the farmer’s markets. It’s a specific type of loneliness.

“Money Trees,” Kendrick Lamar
“A dollar just might make that lane switch.” Anyone can get bought out. I really vibed with this track while writing.

“More Than This,” Roxy Music
I associate the entire Avalon album with Hong Kong, and the particular romanticism of cities in southeast Asia. The way those cities look, to me as a kid, was so exciting. I remember riding in a car through city streets for the first time, how it was such a strange sensation. This was back when everyone still rode bikes. And at my aunt’s house, my grandpa and uncle smoking cigarettes while conversing with each other, their elegant ankle socks in slippers against the concrete floor.

“Unchained Melody,” The Righteous Brothers
Sunday afternoon TV infomercials introduced me to the Righteous Brothers, but this is one of those songs that you know even before hearing it. It has the feel of a religious hymnal, but the lyrics about secular love, and the desperation of the delivery, sound almost profane. “God speed your love to me.” Wow!

“Satisfaction,” Cat Power
I listen to this Rolling Stones cover when I need a palate cleanser, to reset. I like the lyrics about being sold to: “When I’m watching my tv and a man comes on to tell me / how white my shirts can be / But he can’t be a man cause he doesn’t smoke / the same cigarettes as me.” The languid pace says that I can take as long as I need.

“Crying,” Roy Orbison
This is classic. I like the strain of Orbison’s voice as he hits the high notes. I always thought Candace was more torn up about her breakup with Jonathan than she let on. I feel this song is a possibility for how she felt, if she had let herself.

“Ocean Floor for Everything,” How to Dress Well
If there’s an ocean floor for everything, then nothing is ever really lost. I liked that burst of light at the end. Tom Krell’s work throws back to 90s R&B, which is the genre that most reminds me of immigrating from China to the US. This live version is even better. And his cover of R Kelly’s “I Wish” tears me up.

“Who Is It,” Michael Jackson
I could recognize the opening strains of this track anywhere, its agitated mix of funk and R&B. I might’ve been in first grade when I first heard it. One of my Chinese friends had a cassette tape, and I duplicated it.

“Consideration,” Rihanna
Rihanna shows up a lot in Severance. I often thought of this track as Candace’s power song. I listened to this a lot as things got worse and worse for her. I might’ve been listening to this when I wrote the end.

Ling Ma and Severance links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Chicago Tribune review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

All Things Considered interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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