Bliss Montage, Ling Ma (Farrar, Straus, Giroux 978-0-37429-351-2, $26.00, 240pp, hc) September 2022.
Ling Ma’s debut novel, Severance, was one of my top-five books of 2018. Seven months before the pandemic, Ma told the story of a fungal infection originating in China that spreads rapidly across the world and compels the infected to repeat the same mindless tasks before they drop dead from exhaustion and malnutrition. Not only was Severance an excellent take-down of late-stage capitalism, it was also an honest examination of growing up as a first-generation immigrant in America. While there are significantly fewer pandemics in Ma’s debut collection, Bliss Montage, the book’s delicious assortment of surreal and conventional stories speak to the same themes that informed Severance: the otherness and alienation felt as a Chinese American and as a woman.
I had not heard of the term “Bliss Montage” before picking up the collection. The phrase, as Ma explains in the acknowledgments, was first coined by film historian Jeanine Basinger, who used it to describe a short sequence, common in classic Hollywood films, where the heroine experiences several moments of unbridled happiness with the male love interest. On the surface, the choice of title is ironic: there’s very little bliss to be found in these eight stories. At a deeper level, Ma’s fiction ridicules the montage’s Platonic and patriarchal depiction of female happiness. Take the opening story, “Los Angeles”, where the main character lives in a house with three wings:
The west wing is where the Husband and I live. The east wing is where the children and their attending au pairs live. And lastly, the largest but ugliest wing, extending behind the house like a gnarled broken arm, is where my 100 ex-boyfriends live. We live in LA.
The Husband speaks in dollar signs, the children are rarely seen, and our protagonist hangs out every day with her exes, all crammed into a Porsche 911 Turbo S as if “it were a clown car.” But it’s a life devoid of real joy or contentment. The narrator is literally and metaphorically burdened by the emotional baggage of her past, especially the abuse perpetrated by one of her ex-boyfriends, a trauma she’s never come to terms with. Tonally different, “Oranges” also centres on a woman confronting a violent ex-partner. Unlike “Los Angeles” with its veneer of the absurd, “Oranges” is unapologetic in its treatment of domestic battery. The most powerful moment in this potent piece is the narrator’s tragic revelation that despite owning her narrative of partner abuse, it provided no release, no catharsis. “Your identity is flattened into this fixed thing,” she writes. “It was all anyone associated with me; I became a waste bin of unsolicited sympathy.” If bliss can be found in any story, it’s the wonderfully surreal and brilliantly titled “Yeti Lovemaking”. It’s about a woman, recently single, who meets a Yeti wearing a human suit in a wine bar. The narrator discovers that while making love to a Yeti is painful (their epidermis is lined with “tiny incisors”), not only does the body adapt (“the skin toughens, capillaries become less prone to breakage”) it’s preferable to and more pleasurable than being with a man.
The “Bliss Montage”, as applied to classic Hollywood, isn’t just heteronormative, it’s also dismissive of any identity that isn’t white. “G” subverts this, involving a queer relationship between two Chinese women. The story even features a montage as the two women, high on the narcotic “G,” which makes the user invisible to others, cause all sorts of mischief. Fundamentally, though, it’s a story of not belonging, of not being noticed, of finding solace in the one person who is willing to see you, even if that relationship is toxic. The experience of not belonging is also apparent in “Tomorrow”. The tale begins with the protagonist’s horrific discovery that her unborn child’s arm is “coming out of her vagina.” Seeking support, Eve decides to return to her “home country” (which seems to be China, though it’s never named) only to realise that there’s no community, no comfort to be found in her parent’s homeland. But the piece that is the most effective at unpacking the alienation encountered by immigrants and their children in America is “Peking Duck”. At an MFA course, the narrator submits a story about the day her mother, as a younger woman recently arrived in America, walked away from her job as a nanny for a white couple, despite the family needing the money. During the class appraisal, a fellow student of Chinese descent critiques the piece for being a “tired Asian American subject, these stories about immigrant hardships and, like, inter-generational woes.” “Peking Duck” ends with Ma presenting us the story that was submitted. It’s a discomfiting piece of writing, as the mother is forced to “entertain” a salesman who visits the house unannounced. The question I feel Ma is asking is whether these lived experiences, these memories fed to a Western audience by the next generation of Chinese (or Asian) Americans, have any inherent value. Are they more than just repeated tales of “inter-generational” woe?
The open-ended quality of “Peking Duck” is a common feature of the stories in Bliss Montage – narratives stop rather than come to an end. This isn’t a flaw but rather recognition that the biggest lie perpetuated by the “bliss montage” is that life can be neatly edited together with all the messiness and loose threads removed.
Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at email@example.com.
This review and more like it in the September 2022 issue of Locus.
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