by Ling Ma
reviewed by Jocelyn Sears
Ling Ma’s 2018 debut novel Severance captured the literary world’s attention with its original blending of genres. A tale of a pandemic-induced zombie apocalypse, Severance is also a novel of immigrant experience and a portrait of millennial malaise. Severance received rave reviews upon publication and resurged in public discourse in 2020, when an actual pandemic transformed the world. Readers who appreciate the incisive humor, penetrating social critique, and generic mashup of Severance will be delighted by Bliss Montage, Ma’s first collection of short stories, which mixes the absurd and fantastical with moving evocations of the intimate and everyday.
Bliss Montage’s stories range from the realist (“Oranges,” “Peking Duck”) to the absurdist (“Los Angeles,” “Yeti Lovemaking,” “Tomorrow”) to the gently fantastical (“G,” “Office Hours,” “Returning”), yet the stories read like variations on a theme—alternate (if wildly different) lives that the same person could have lived. The first two stories, “Los Angeles” and “Oranges,” most clearly demonstrate this tendency. Both depict a protagonist confronting the fallout of an abusive relationship with a man named Adam, but “Los Angeles” is absurdist and bitingly satirical, while “Oranges” dwells on the mundane in a matter-of-fact tone.
The narrator of “Los Angeles,” who meets her rich, emotionally absent husband on LoweredExpectations.com, shares a mansion with him, her two children, and her one hundred ex-boyfriends: “Aaron. Adam. Akihiko. Alejandro. Anders. Andrew. Those are just the As.” She lives in material comfort but fixates on her past. The ex-boyfriends symbolize, tantalizingly and threateningly, the alternate lives that she could have lived. Aaron represents meaningful connection—he was the only boyfriend that she truly loved—while Adam abused her and so changed her irrevocably. “Los Angeles” moves from acerbic quips—LA is “not so much a city as a series of urban planning decisions made without foresight”—to unsparing reflections on human relationships: “The Husband is a resting place. He is a chair. Sometimes I drape myself over him and I get the physical comfort of not being alone.” Ma’s figurative language sometimes seems too extreme for its purpose, as when the narrator reports giving birth to two children, “one gang-bangingly after the other,” but overall, “Los Angeles” is both incisively comic and emotionally affecting. In contrast, “Oranges” is a realist meditation on intimate partner violence and the various ways its victims work to regain control of their lives. Beginning the collection with these two stories, Ma primes readers to notice continuities between stories that, on the surface, may appear strikingly dissimilar.
The characters in Bliss Montage struggle with the inevitability of choice and its consequences, the “slow narrowing of possibilities” over time that “catch [one] and freeze [one] in a vocation, a relationship, a life.” The narrator of “Returning,” a writer, feels that she has become a different person in the time between writing her first novel in her twenties and seeing it published in her thirties: “The person who entered the dream was not the same one who awoke from it.” She has also grown apart from her husband, Peter, with whom she wishes to rekindle intimacy without exactly knowing how. An immigrant from the imaginary country of Garboza, Peter returns to his homeland to undergo a dangerous but powerful ritual: he will be buried alive, and if he survives the ordeal, perhaps the couple can start over.
Ma has the uncanny ability to devise fantastical premises that reveal stark truths about life and relationships. In “G,” an illicit drug that makes the user invisible becomes an illuminating metaphor for eating disorders, allowing Ma to explore how being seen, and thereby known, by other people is both a burden and a necessity. “Yeti Lovemaking” takes the idiom “getting some strange” to a comic extreme, as a woman still reeling from a breakup embarks on a one-night stand with the titular creature, who smokes American Spirit Lights and hands out informational pamphlets on human–yeti intercourse. In “Tomorrow,” a pregnancy complication impels the narrator to ask where she ultimately belongs, her birth country or the place to which she has immigrated, and which culture is home.
Bliss Montage is an inventive, unsettling, and rewarding read. If Severance established Ma as a unique voice in contemporary literature, her luminous first story collection only confirms her ability to deliver social critique through a startling and entertaining combination of realist and speculative fiction.
Published on February 14, 2023