Illustration of Ling Ma by Sydni Baluch
Illustration by Sydni Baluch

Ling Ma’s latest short story collection Bliss Montage is a fever dream where the real and surreal have merged into one. The eight stories that make up the collection follow intimate, confessional protagonists and absurdist fantasies carried to their conclusion.

From toxic friendships, abusive relationships, and vacations to an unfamiliar homeland, Ma takes familiar situations and pushes them to their extremes. A listless housewife keeps her one-hundred ex-boyfriends housed in her Los Angeles mega-mansion even as her life has moved on without them. A soon-to-be film student takes invisibility drugs with her childhood friend, wreaking havoc in New York for the last time. A lonely government employee finds a small baby’s arm protruding out from inside her—a rather normal, if uncanny birth defect in the United States these days.

In Bliss Montage, the surreal often bleeds into the familiar. Its characters inhabit the normalcy of Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, DC, Utah, a fictional, post-communist country named Garboza, and a United States so far deteriorated that migrants no longer rush its borders and its founding artifacts are on loan to foreign museums. The abnormal becomes normal—for as repeated by one of the characters in her stories, “it is in the most surreal situations that a person feels the most present, the closest to reality.”

Bliss Montage is Ma’s second book following the publication of her debut science-fiction novel Severance, a coming-of-age novel following millennial office worker Candace Chen through the apocalypse. Published in 2018, Severance was lauded as the coronavirus novel come early. Set in a 2011 apocalyptic New York ravaged by a fictional Shen Fever, Ma managed to capture overwhelming societal collapse in her own darkly satirical way—of late-stage capitalism, immigration and alienation from one’s home, and harmless zombies doomed to repeat their same old routines until they perish. “Even though there’s no scene in Severance that’s directly from my life, when I open it up, and I read maybe a paragraph, I feel like I’m back to my mid-late twenties,” Ma said. “There’s a mood, like an energy that I feel it’s faithful to that time that I like.”

If Severance became the novel to capture the zeitgeist of the pandemic, what’s to be said of Bliss Montage—written during the pandemic and published this fall? “It was so strange during the pandemic that people were reading [Severance]…that was when I managed to get some time off from teaching,” Ma said. Severance emerged as a story written while living on severance pay and finished while completing her MFA at Cornell University.

Ma is currently a creative writing professor at the University of Chicago. Finished in the delirium of lockdown and during the birth of her first child, Bliss Montage came to life with its own unexpected irony. The collection’s title calls back to a term coined by film historian Jeanine Basinger on a particular montage in early Hollywood films, showing female characters blissing out on a pleasure sequence—encapsulating “the rapid and brief passage of time in which a woman can be happy” as Basinger writes in her 1993 book A Women’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930–1960. The happy interlude becomes a marginal piece of joy—a piece of editing that leaves her “maybe two minutes’ running time.”

“That feature actually originated with what they call the women’s film. So there was an old-time genre of film back in the day that showed women’s stories, and they were like morality tales. So if the heroine has an affair, then she ends up getting punished in some way,” Ma said. “It would show like two minutes of the female lead enjoying her life, like shopping, and then usually it would come right before the downfall or the complications of the plot would arise. It would come right before her downfall.”

The eight stories in Bliss Montage always feature female protagonists, who in the runtime of their short stories, find their bliss rapidly cut short. Bliss Montage contains none of that same moralizing, but it nods to how their glimpses of happiness are struck down by loneliness and alienation. In “Los Angeles,” the life that the unnamed protagonist has knit together for her family and one hundred ex-boyfriends begins to fall apart, slowly and all at once. “Yeti Lovemaking” presents a flirty one-night stand with the mythical beast but starts and ends with a primal cry of loneliness—one that cannot be recognized by anyone else.

The brief periods of bliss that the characters experience are interrupted, and oftentimes by circumstances entirely out of their control. A female professor in “Office Hours” hides herself in the Narnia-esque office closet to another dimension, only to learn she still cannot escape her insipid and overbearing male colleague. In “G,” Bea, the expected film student, runs so far into drug-induced invisibility, she stays untethered from her own body—her nostalgia-driven high becomes shattered by the breakdown of her former friendship. She tries to leave her old life behind and say goodbye to her childhood friend, only to be seized with memories of their toxic competitive friendship growing up in the same Chinese immigrant community.

“It’s body image through an immigrant lens, which I hadn’t seen before. It did feel like growing up that some of the consciousness of our bodies was really tied into this immigrant competitiveness with like SAT scores, as well,” Ma said. “Thinking about how I was considered, as a teenager, I was considered thin as an American, but overweight as a Chinese girl, and it was just thinking about those two standards—it was kind of maddening, and it was fun to make a story around that.”

Ma’s protagonists are often messy and conflicted—making questionable decisions throughout the run of their narratives. She talks about the burden of positive representation—how for marginalized groups with fewer stories and media portrayal, the pressure to create positive, flattering depictions becomes greater. “When you deal with minority characters, there’s the burden that you have to make them into these idealized archetypes or something, but maybe they could just be human, or maybe we can just take these characters for what they are,” Ma said.

Representation becomes a double-edged sword, where the complexity afforded to white characters isn’t always afforded to characters of color. Ma described one such incident with a producer who was interested in turning “G” into a movie. “There was one woman who was a bit skeptical. She asked: what do you think this story is saying about women? But that’s not what the question was. Her question: what do you think the story is saying about Asian American women, about Chinese American women?” Ma said. “Because you could argue it’s not like a positive representation, two girls pitted against each other. But there are tons of stories of white women—they get a plethora of narrative options that aren’t available to these two Chinese American characters.”

Like “G,” half of the stories in the collection feature first and second-generation immigrant protagonists. “Returning” and “Tomorrow” match each other. “Returning” chronicles a woman traveling with her husband to his homeland for a ceremony of rebirth. Both are popular authors unhappy with their own married lives, and the story is intermixed with excerpts of their own published books about the inherent impossibility of ever truly returning home. For Eve in “Tomorrow,” visiting the country of her birth doesn’t exactly offer her the relief she hopes for, leaving her and the baby’s arm dangling outside her body straddling a line between her two homes. Both end in their respective homelands and on the precipice of great change—but the frame cuts before anyone can determine what this means for them.

Bliss Montage isn’t afraid to embrace the metafictional as many of them unpack immigrant backgrounds familiar to Ma’s own life. “Peking Duck” becomes something of a story within a story within a story, following an MFA student who fictionalizes one of her mother’s own experiences as a nanny dealing with a threatening white intruder. The frame changes throughout the story, going through workshop critiques where her classmates question whether her depiction of her mother is too stereotypical as a Chinese immigrant. She shows her mother an advance copy of her book, a story collection “with a vaguely Chinese cover image of persimmons in a Ming dynasty bowl” coming out the following month, and the two politely bicker over whether she was actually trying to capture her experiences and whether she prefers to write negative things about their assimilation. The last section plays out the event from her fictionalized mother’s perspective, leaving us to wonder—is this the daughter’s retelling that appears in the book? Is this her mother’s true story or is her mother’s voice wholly out of reach? And can anyone truly claim ownership of a story?

“Some of the more contentious workshops mostly revolved around the question of who has the right to write about the next topic. And not necessarily always pertaining to immigrants or race, but that question often came up. Often I didn’t find those discussions to be very fruitful,” Ma said. “We were not really looking at the work, and we weren’t taking the work, this workshop submission on its own terms, that it was just sometimes going off track.”

Her advice for other writers is simple.

“I would say spend time alone, read a lot, and write a lot—and be willing to embrace your own bad writing…You have to find a way to counter your own perfectionism tendencies because it’s never the published version at first,” Ma said. “Embrace wasting time. Embrace spending two hours writing a paragraph that never makes it into print. But you have to be okay with that, and you have to enjoy the process of it because actually, the process of you trying to put together that paragraph does lead you to the paragraph that works.”

Ling Ma, Bliss Montage. $14–26. Macmillan, 2022. 240 pages.

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Reema Saleh is a journalist and graduate student at the University of Chicago studying public policy. She last interviewed artists Martha Wade and Sebastian Silverio.

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