Ling Ma’s debut novel, Severance (2018), explores a world ravaged by an infectious disease through the lens of a disaffected millennial immigrant. It is prophetic, to say the least. Ma is skilled at balancing on the knife edge of magical realism, expertly navigating the space between fantasy and reality.
In her newest book, a collection of short stories called Bliss Montage, she proves adept at various genres — literary fiction, magical realism, horror, and science fiction making appearances in the collection. Almost every story has a fantastical edge, from a drug that turns its users invisible to a fetus that partially develops outside the womb to a short guide to making love with a yeti. “It is in the most surreal situations that a person feels the most present, the closest to reality,” remarks one of Ma’s characters.
Bliss Montage takes its title from a term coined by film historian Jeanine Basinger in her 1993 book A Woman’s View. A bliss montage, Basinger writes, is the brief interlude in film when a woman is happy — before the rest of the plot comes crashing down around her, usually at the behest of the leading male character. Like these brief moments in film, Bliss Montage is also a cinematic reel of sorts. Fervently original and imaginative, Ma plays with this idea of marginal, emotional snapshots throughout the eight short stories in this collection.
The first story in the collection, “Los Angeles”, is about a woman who lives with her husband, children, and a hundred ex-boyfriends. One of the ex-boyfriends, it is revealed, was abusive toward the narrator in their past relationship. This plot thread is picked up and unspooled further in the second and third stories in Bliss Montage. In “Oranges”, the protagonist is contacted by a former partner of her abusive ex-boyfriend, who is trying to gather eyewitnesses for her court case against him.
In “G”, abuse is explored through the lens of an intense, toxic friendship between two young women. The day before the protagonist is flight-bound for New York to attend grad school, she and her childhood friend, Bonnie, take the titular G drug together — a drug that not only delivers users a euphoric high but renders them invisible. It is against this backdrop of literary science fiction that Ma explores co-dependency and the fear of abandonment through the lens of a feverish female friendship.
“Returning”, one of Ma’s more horror-adjacent stories, sees the protagonist travelling to her husband’s home country for a strange, folkloric ritual that involves being buried overnight. This story involves two tales-within-a-tale: the first is a graphic novel written by one of the narrator’s colleagues about a space crew that, upon returning to Earth after 200 years, finds no one has been waiting for them. The second is the protagonist’s novel, an incising story about a married couple who cryogenically freeze themselves because it’s more economically efficient than living.
In “Office Hours”, Ma subverts narrative expectations in a story about a young woman’s relationship with her film studies professor. It’s a familiar trope, but Ma takes it in an unexpected direction. The characters in the story go unnamed until the second half of the story — after the film professor has retired and the narrator has taken over his job. In a Narnia-esque twist, the narrator meets the professor at a faculty party one day, and he shows her a secret portal in the wardrobe in his old office. But the world behind the wardrobe isn’t full of magical creatures — instead, the narrator uses it to take smoke breaks and hide from colleagues.
Many of Ma’s protagonists are Chinese immigrants to the United States, like Ma herself. Themes of alienation and immigration are particularly present in “Peking Duck”, which explores the politics of storytelling through the protagonist’s relationship with her mother. After the protagonist, a burgeoning writer, presents a short story to her MFA workshop — a story based on her mother’s experience working as a nanny during her childhood — the story is criticized for being too stereotypical, the protagonist too “meek” and “submissive”. Her classmates are unaware the story is semi-autobiographical. When the protagonist presents the story to her mother, she is alienated from the story, even though it is based on her own experience. “The story”Peking Duck” is, in a way, in direct conversation with the Asian American literary genre itself. It is remarkably self-aware.
In the final story of the collection, “Tomorrow”, Ma explores the fears and anxieties around pregnancy and motherhood. The protagonist, Eve, experiences a strange medical anomaly when her fetus starts to develop outside the womb; its arm protrudes awkwardly from between her legs. A subversion of the notion of the American dream, Eve is caught between two worlds: America and her home country, the same way her fetus is trapped between the world and her womb.
To read Ma’s work is to step into her meticulously crafted worlds where fantasy and reality blur and bleed into one another. Ma grounds the fantastical in tangibility, often in the form of emotions, relationships, and relatable life events — a painful break-up, a toxic friend, immigrant parents, and a relationship between mother and daughter. Ma’s fiction finds mundanity in the absurd and the absurd in mundanity. Through a surrealistic lens, she reflects our nature, and we cannot look away. Like the bliss montage that this story collection is named after, Ma’s stories are ones I want to revisit again and again.