On the shelf
Bliss Montage: Stories
By Ling Ma
FSG: 240 pages, $26
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One of my former editors once told me not to mention the cover of a book in a review — that it makes the words in it cheaper by tying them to the work of the advertising and marketing buzzards. I disagree.
In Beijing Duck, one of the standout stories in Ling Ma’s Bliss Montage collection, a young author presents her mother with an early copy of her new book. It is a collection of stories “with a vaguely Chinese cover of persimmons in a bowl from the Ming Dynasty”. The image implies tradition and delicacy, pretty tales of domestic imbalance and clichéd Eastern promises of happiness. Ma tells us how it looks because she knows it matters.
On the cover of Bliss Montage, clear plastic clings to the knobbed curves of oranges, smothering all that sunny sizzle. The title and Ma’s name are also disheveled, as if the author herself is sealing delicious indulgence into a denatured product.
The stories of “Bliss Montage” keep what the cover promises. They play in small pockets away from “real” life, whatever that means: in a parallel world that is hidden behind a wardrobe; at a cult festival in a fictional country; on an extended vacation in a “de-Americanized” world; in an MFA workshop. The air was sucked out of all this claustrophobic nowhere.
The tracks share a certain mood and it’s lonely as hell. Characters float between chat groups at parties without making a wave. A woman wakes up after a plane has landed to find that her husband has disembarked without her; it registers, but hardly. When characters disappear into these fringes – and quite a few do – it’s unclear if anyone will ever notice.
That much sounds familiar from Ma’s acclaimed 2018 debut comic dystopian novel Severance, in which publishing broker Candace keeps updating her photoblog NYGhost after (most of) the rest of the world is infected by a freak plague became . Like all Apocalypse Final Girls, she is somewhere she shouldn’t be, in a sub-region between humanity and what comes next. NYGhost can see but is never seen, both when their city is populated and when it’s empty. “Severance pay” is a prototype for the best of “Bliss Montage”: surreal but rooted, watching from afar as the world crumbles. Ghosts are the ultimate voyeurs – writers in their ectoplasmic state.
Ma drives a good concept when she finds one. Beginning with two unfocused stories, the collection takes off with “G,” about two women in a disintegrating friendship who spend their final night living in the same town, intoxicated by a drug that renders them invisible. The side effects remind us of other labeled drugs, including E and K: “You’re walking around in a lower gravity, a low helium balloon the day after a birthday party.” You lose weight from raging diarrhea — literal body loss. But you can also knock drinks off tables in street bistros or grope each other under the guise of momentary irresponsibility. Before you swallow the shell-shaped pill, ditch your makeup and undress; Vulnerability is the gateway to freedom.
However, there is a catch. “I did so much G,” recounts the unnamed protagonist, “that my adult sense of self was formed in the complete absence of my reflection.” As a teenager, when she gained weight, her mother warned her: “Those are my cheekbones. Don’t lose her.” But like it or not, a body is what ties you to the earth, and when the cheekbones disappear along with the rest of her for more than a few hours, the unnamed woman panics from her new selflessness. Who are you if you can’t see who you are?
Bring up the bodies. Ma wants to see what they can do in fiction aside from ruining our self-esteem. In “Returning,” a woman flies to her husband’s homeland, the small fictional nation of Garboza, and follows him into the forest, where the citizens bury themselves overnight in hopes of healing.
In Ma’s final story, Tomorrow, a sad bureaucrat retreats to the country of her birth after a breakup and an unexpected pregnancy in a future world where “the US wasn’t number one anymore.” Even the fetus in Eve wants to assert itself: its arm pops out from between her legs early in pregnancy and dangles there like an appendage, and you know what I mean. (Unfortunately, Ma doesn’t explain how the cute chubby member doesn’t get crushed when his mom takes a seat. As a twice pregnant person, I need to know.)
The later stories in “Bliss Montage” flow more smoothly, as if they were the first vocal warm-ups and final performances at Carnegie Hall. But the entire collection could just as easily have been written for Peking Duck and Office Hours, two powerhouses so engrossing you’ll be praying Ma will weave them into future novels.
(There’s also an interstory similar to this bracket: short, cleansing, unnecessary, but invigorating, about a yeti wearing a human suit who takes a woman back to his abode and seduces her in mythical beast lovemaking set to the gentle beats is set from Janet Jackson’s “Velvet Rope”.)
In “Office Hours,” a film studies professor about to leave college discovers behind a closet a door leading to a cool, dark forest. The Narnia references are in neon. But Ma isn’t content to lead Marie to a land of otherworldly delights. Marie teaches a class called The Vanishing Woman, but she can’t shake the men she wants to leave behind; Even a CS Lewis fantasy land can’t maintain the “extreme, surreal privacy” she appreciates. Can’t a woman just wander off to another universe? Or, as Ma slyly notes, has the fiction pushed her out of the picture so many times that now she has to kick and scream to drag her back?
Sometimes women disappear into their own writing, swallowed up by the cruel tricks fiction can play on its own author. “Peking Duck” is rooted in a paragraph-long story by Lydia Davis about a writer whose “favourite story she’s written” is one she’s only read, which relays a student saying his Favorite memory was his wife’s memory of eating duck in Beijing.
Ma tugs at the flesh of that juicy morsel until it’s so contorted that it can no longer hold the seed securely in its center. Drawing on Davis’ wicked storytelling phone game, Ma weaves new stories together – and then the smallest Matryoshkas tear apart the larger dolls in a vain attempt to escape their form. Her version is wrapped in a story that tells her protagonist about her immigrant mother with “broken and halting” English who loses her job as a nanny to a fancy white family. But this story is also torn apart, first in an MFA workshop and then by her mother, and in the end we wonder if Ma might also have regrets about this brilliant story. “Look, we’re not like Americans,” the mother says to her daughter. “We don’t have to talk about anything that makes us feel negative.”
But the mother does not control the narrative here. In fact, we don’t know exactly who is doing this. Fiction, that slippery, transparent shrink-wrap of artistry pulled taut over reality, leads the show.
Kelly’s work has been published in New York Magazine, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-09-09/sad-beautiful-fantasies-abound-ling-ma-story-collection-bliss-montage Review: Ling Ma’s surreal story collection “Bliss Montage”