While Ling Ma has already proven herself to be a dazzling storyteller after her first novel “Severance,” her debut short story collection intuitively breaks into the universal anxieties of modern life. Each short story in the aptly-named collection “Bliss Montage” taps into a specific collective truth and turns it into a hysteric fever dream or outright nightmare. And while “Severance” centers on the capitalist hellscape of millennial professional life, “Bliss Montage” expands itself into every personal, romantic and political nightmare of this generation.
It would be a disservice to Ling Ma and the merit of “Bliss Montage” to live in the shadow of “Severance,” but it’s impossible to discuss the former without mentioning the latter. Candace, the protagonist of “Severance,” embodied the disassociated-woman trend in contemporary literature, while equally satirizing it. This was achieved through Ling Ma’s jaded, exhausted and bored characterizations of women living in exaggerated modern landscapes. Importantly, this successful execution is somehow amplified in “Bliss Montage,” in which each narrator has nearly the same disembodied, borderline claustrophobic voice. And though each narrator is distinct in the plots they recount, they share the same feeling of anxiously peering through a cracked window, searching for something to salvage in all the rubbish of their lives.
Though “Severance” may have set this as the standard for Ling Ma’s writing, “Bliss Montage” has completely mastered it.
While not entirely cohesive, “Bliss Montage” is a loosely-connected series of allegories stolen from real-world anxieties. The stories themselves seemingly could not exist in the same world as each other, with each one hosting an all-consuming nightmare that must be the only one haunting the narrator’s world, because life would otherwise seem unlivable. Perhaps self-aware of this, Ma writes, “It is in the most surreal situations that a person feels most present, the closest to reality.” The collection is surreal enough to poke straight through to the core of reality, almost like staring at a reflection in a distorted, candle-lit mirror and trying to discern an accurate image. This is a core tension in Ma’s writing: how far can she warp reality until it’s completely unrecognizable? She toes this line with precision, only ever blurring it with pure intentionality.
This is the greatest success of “Bliss Montage”: despite being a surreal nightmare, each story is only a twist away from existing in the real world.
As a strict contrast to the rest of the stand-alone tales, Ma begins her collection with the only two clearly connected short stories in the collection. A character named Adam appears in both — a repeatedly violent, explosive and criminal boyfriend of the women he interacts with. The opening story, “Los Angeles,” follows a woman who lives in a house with her two perfect children, an unnamed husband whose speech literally consists only of the US dollar sign ($), and the ghosts of her 100 ex-boyfriends. This is a story of wanting it all: the nuclear family, every possible romantic plot and never being impacted by loss. In the words of the narrator’s daughter, this story yearns to “have its juice and spill it too.” Ironically, only the ex-boyfriends have names, and we spend more time recounting them than with her settled family. This is largely done to amplify the domestic nightmare of the American dream, but Ma does not allow for her book’s housewife to dissolve into faux household bliss. Instead, the absurdity of settling down just for social value is juxtaposed with the 100 ex-boyfriends she seemingly values far more than her nameless, voiceless husband.
Eventually, the story turns to Adam, an abusive ex of the narrator who’s currently wanted by the LAPD. In the grand finale of his first story, he makes a swift escape from the home to evade the police looking for him. He runs faster than the nuclear family, who proceed to chase him with an uncharacteristic fervor into the deep woods near their expansive home. The story fully settles into itself at this point — it is no longer laughable that the narrator lives with the ghosts of former lovers and abusers. When Adam is just in her grasp, she thinks, “I really, really want to catch him. I want to masticate him with my teeth. I want to barf on him and coat him in my stinging acids.” Up until this point, the narrator thinks of these ghosts fondly — until she is confronted with reality. Even still, there is a yearning to keep her ghosts close to her. Adam is still just out of the narrator’s reach as the story comes to a close, ending with, “But I am close. I am so, so close.”
Themes of abuse run through the collection, as embodied by the next second story “Oranges.” In this plot line, Adam is yet again being chased down by the same ex-girlfriend. In a haze, the narrator follows Adam home when she sees him in person for the first time since she provided her story in a domestic abuse trial against him. While she was not the one who pressed charges, she shared her narrative to help another ex of his win her case against him. Ultimately, this story deviates greatly from the previous absurdism of “Los Angeles.” More than anything, it is a story of processing domestic abuse, finding a support network and the lengths one will go to in order to understand why violence was inflicted upon them. While following him home through rain, alleys and darkness, the narrator recounts the extremes of her experiences and Adam’s personality. The plot isn’t quite chronological but is rather a deep introspection into the abuse and lingering impacts of their relationship. The narrator eventually arrives at not only his apartment but at her conclusions about his abuse and personality. In a delirious series of events, she is invited into the apartment, realizes it belongs to his girlfriend and decides to share his history of abuse. Adam and his new girlfriend ask the narrator to leave and, in a moment of clarity, the narrator confirms her theories on Adam’s turmoil: he is not angry or ashamed, but “he just looked trapped.”
The stark contrast between the fantasies and realities Ling Ma is investigating urges the reader to continue to look rigorously at the underlying truths of the rest of the stories in “Bliss Montage.” This clear duplicity requires the reader to acknowledge that Ma’s writing will continue to hold more meanings than what is explicit, and that the collection must be read with a fine-tooth comb. From this framework, some other double-edged swords of short stories include “Yeti Lovemaking,” which is exactly what the title suggests and has some of the most lovely language in the collection about lost love. Similarly, “G” explores a fantastical drug that renders the user invisible, telling a tale of lost love, family pressures, beauty standards and the thin line between adoration and complete absorption of another person. As a final highlight of the eight stories included in the collection, “Tomorrow” imagines a world healing from American imperialism and the impending doom of modern American culture. In this reality, climate change, pollution and economic collapse lead the narrator to carry a baby that is growing both inside and outside of her — in a common birth defect in Ma’s fantastical world, the arm is growing out between her legs. In the midst of a cultural hangover, Ma wrings out the horrors of modern life and turns these delusions into a blend of horrifyingly beautiful stories.
Daily Arts Writer Ava Burzycki can be reached at email@example.com.