Where Exactly Is Ling Ma Trying to Take Us in Bliss Montage?

Ling Ma’s new short story collection, Bliss Montage, leads us down strange, stimulating paths — and then leaves us before we can fully gather our bearings.

Ma Ling in Chicago. (Anjali Pinto / Macmillan)

Ling Ma’s new short story collection, Bliss Montage, ends with a story called “Tomorrow,” about a woman named Eve who discovers she’s pregnant and then, disturbingly, that the fetus’s arm is sticking down through her cervix and out of her vagina. After the doctor tells her this is normal, an effect of since-discontinued hygiene products and other regularly consumed toxic materials, Eve books a six-month trip to her (unspecified) country of origin, where she will spend the bulk of her pregnancy.

Held at a distance by Ma’s deadpan, matter-of-fact prose style, we are not privy to Eve’s decision-making process. She learns she’s pregnant, she is surprised, and then, suddenly, she has decided to become a mother. Pregnancy has flipped a switch in her mind, it seems, and created an inarticulable chasm, unbridgeable even by the author, between us and her.

Why would I accept this chasm, I ask myself as I read “Tomorrow.” I want to demand an explanation. I want to know why Ma’s characters are so far away, not just in this story, but in all of the stories in Bliss Montage.

With “Tomorrow,” I can render a guess: we are conditioned by years of a choice feminism that has set the horizon of struggle on women’s ability to make choices while ignoring how capitalism has circumscribed those choices; that, in its worst incarnations, has made both self-exploitation and self-objectification in order to succeed in work or in love (or both) not only acceptable but aspirational. We are thus primed to believe, as if it is dogma, that whatever this woman has decided is not only correct, but indisputable. That we don’t have a right to question. That it would be anti-feminist, anti-woman even, to merely wonder.

So we are held, anti-socially, at bay. This distance pervades Bliss Montage, and it also pervades Ma’s prescient 2018 debut novel Severance, whose protagonist, Candace, refers to a mysterious “situation” she finds herself in until we discover that she’s pregnant. Severance takes place in the immediate lead-up to and aftermath of a pandemic that originated in China. Much of what happens lies directly outside of Candace’s control. But even under such conditions, Candace is simply and disturbingly along for the ride, for reasons that Ma never fully elucidates. Then, just as it seems like Candace might take the story’s reins, the novel just… ends. It’s not that the preceding three hundred pages haven’t been interesting; it’s just that it feels unclear how they’ve led us to the final one.

Still, Severance is an impressive debut novel. Ma is both the heir-apparent to and vanguardist rule-breaker of a legacy of immigrant writing whose depictions of life and work in America capture so much of immigrants’ collective experience and shaping of our imaginary. By way of example: a friend recently told me that Severance helped her reach a new understanding of her relationship with her Taiwanese mother. Ma’s work differs from that of authors like Amy Tan or Sandra Cisneros, representatives of a preceding generation of immigrant writers: her work deals more with the expression of the group experience in the individual, as opposed to the way the individual’s experience reflects that of the group.

This difference is subtle but important, freeing the individual from the burden of representation of the group and liberating her to have experiences, thoughts, ideas, ambitions, desires, and feelings that don’t fit neatly into a single, stereotypical narrative of what it means to be an immigrant, or even to hail from a particular country.

The eight stories in Bliss Montage are full of such characters, as well as characters whose immigrant status is not a subject of exploration, Ma having freed them, as well as herself, from the burden of representation. It’s a promising foundation on which to build a collection, and the short story format presents a chance at a deeper engagement with the themes already prevalent in Ma’s work. Unfortunately, though, the short story form doesn’t always quite work in Bliss Montage, and some pieces left me feeling like Ma had missed an opportunity at deepening her indagations in favor of a more surface-level survey of ideas.

This isn’t always necessarily a bad thing — moments of insight can indeed be just moments that remain incompletely explained. But stories like “G,” which deals with the friendship between two young Chinese-American women and their use of a drug called G that makes people immaterialize, and the impossibly brief vignette “Yeti Lovemaking” left me unsatisfied, like I had been pulled out of the story before it had even started. Their moments of bright tenderness and lucid observations fall like single droplets into a placid lake: hyper-visible for a moment and then forgotten, quickly melding into an unmoving whole.

Ma lets opportunities for rapprochement between reader and author pass by in favor of pushing the reader away. Even in its standout story, “Peking Duck,” Ma hides her characters from the readers. At one point, she sets a scene in an MFA workshop, a context through which the narrator becomes opaque to the reader, who never hears her intentions directly but rather as they are interpreted and communicated by her classmates. This move is one of many that demonstrate Ma’s impressive dexterity with form, and “Peking Duck” is as much a short story as it is an exercise in meta-narrative. At one point, the MFA workshop participants even discuss the same framing and reframing exercise that Ma conducts in the story’s pages.

But it’s unclear to what end Ma is carrying out this exercise. Maybe she’s just showing off. The story’s meta nature and the hyper-self-awareness of its author produced in me a vague sense of anxiety and the concern that I was reading things wrong, that I might have missed some connection or reference, that I needed to be flipping pages back and forth to remind myself of every meta-move.

But even noticing these links — for example, and without giving too much away, a description of the cover of the author’s book in the fifth section of the story bears some resemblance to the cover of Bliss Montage itself — feels not satisfying but rather like I’m being tested, led down a not-so-wild goose chase to the point of distraction.

I found Ma’s cool distance compelling in its refusal of sentimentality but ultimately frustrating. I wanted to approach the story, to get closer so that I might understand more. I was repeatedly denied.

I would be more likely to accept this distance if it had a clarifying effect, like stepping back from the wall to observe a frame you’ve just hung. But in Bliss Montage, it produces opacity. Maybe Ma wants to focus the reader’s attention on the unanswerable rather than guide the reader toward false conclusions; maybe her stories are like the ones the mother character in “Peking Duck” recalls telling her daughter, without conclusions because her “own life didn’t make sense.”

I’m guessing at Ma’s motives because Bliss Montage doesn’t give me enough clues to know for sure. The fragments that make up many of its stories complement each other in a way that would require an ending to at least hint at their connections, not to tie everything up but to explain why we’ve been where we’ve been. Such an ending never comes. “Peking Duck” is one exception to this, its last section arriving as a grand reveal, making it the most successful of Bliss Montage’s stories in terms of its relative completeness.

The book itself is arranged like a short story, building upward from stories like the cheeky “Los Angeles,” about a woman who lives in a three-winged Los Angeles mansion with her husband, children, their au pairs, and her one hundred ex-boyfriends; and the vaguely tragic “Returning,” about a couple, both second-generation Americans, who travel to one of their countries of origin to participate in a re-birthing local ritual; to a climax in “Peking Duck.” These all show off Ma’s talent, also on display in Severance, of describing the alienation of living under conditions far outside of our own choosing and often directly opposed to our best interests; of feeling alien to ourselves, held at a distance from our neighbors, our families, the places and cultures we come from, even the partners we choose.

In some ways this makes Bliss Montage a perfect exemplar of art in 2022, a flashing reminder of our exaggerated alienation, a billboard screaming to a solitary driver: EVERYONE IS ALONE. But Ma’s commitment to such stark realism has led her to shirk the responsibility of interpreting the world she describes. As “Tomorrow” concludes, bringing Bliss Montage to a somber denouement with a vague hint of you-can-never-go-home-again in its last paragraphs, Ma leaves us to pose all the questions and receive none of the answers. It seems she’s hoarding both of them, having left her readers just as alone as her characters.