Bliss Montage, a Review

by Bleah B. Patterson

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Ling Ma understands that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting the result to change. As if in a dreamscape, in Bliss Montage, Ling Ma gives her narrators the opportunity to try out different scenarios of their lives, each ending in varying degrees of eeriness and ambiguity. Her narrators all approach the same objective, which is an amalgamation of an identity crisis as the child of immigrants, an inability to find happiness or authenticity in romantic relationships, and a reconciliation of their personal quest for meaning, all while worrying that their very existence is one embarrassing hoax. In this collection of stories, various narrators embody disconnected but uncannily autobiographical details of the author’s own life in different tiers of impossible situations. Whether these stories are a collection of speculative literature with linked narratives, a nonlinear account of one woman who is inexplicably able to insert herself in one thought experiment after another, or some astounding combination of both, the narrative is consistently stark, unsentimental, and unapologetic in its representation.

In “Los Angeles” and “Orange,” Ma both refuses to shy away from domestic violence and abuse but also, with respect to survivors, does not overindulge in the details. In “Los Angeles,” Ma’s nameless narrator lives in a mansion with access to unimaginable wealth. In one wing of her home, she lives with her husband, who is only ever referred to as “the Husband,” and who does not speak but instead spews dollar signs that only she is able to interpret. In another wing, her two children, conceived rapidly after one another and out of obligation more than desire, are tended to by a team of caretakers. In the third and final wing are one hundred of her ex-boyfriends, two of whom never speak but are, according to the narrator, the “most important”: Adam, who abused her, and Aaron, whom she loved. All one hundred of the boyfriends help raise her children, who inherit skills like sports, reading, and playing music from them, which feels like an apt metaphor for the way we are often the sum of those who have loved us before. In “Orange,” a presumably new narrator stalks the same Adam from a grocery store to his new girlfriend’s apartment; it has been fifteen years, he is evading warrants for domestic violence, and his new partner is unaware of his history. The unnamed narrator warns his new girlfriend and shares her own experiences with Adam, and while the new girlfriend is alarmed, she ultimately chooses to stay. Chronologically this story feels earlier than “Los Angeles” but could contain overlap in its timeline, it contains no speculative or hard-to-believe details, but its relation to the first story feels intentionally open-ended.

Ma’s narrator or narrators are constantly assessing endings, grief, and the idealization of going home again. However, closure and homecoming are moving goal posts in every story as each narrator copes with her prosaic reactions to life events like the death of parents, leaving toxic relationships, marriage, and pregnancy. Not to be overlooked is Ma’s choice to leave the narrator(s) unnamed in all but one story, in which she is called Beatrice. The ambiguity of identity for each narrator is intertwined with not only the overall tone of the book but the message as well. Each narrator is identified as a woman and is in every story described as being Asian-American, sometimes specifically of Chinese descent, a child of immigrants who came to the United States when she was young. But, from story to story, details change that prevent the reader from being able to definitively say they are the same person. The identity of the narrator is part of the mystery, and it is even more interesting to draw parallels between the narrator(s) and Ma herself, which lends to the feeling of possible metaverses. Like Ma, the narrators have a history in academia, always earning degrees in the liberal arts; one character is a professor, and more than once the narrator self-identifies as an author. If the story is indeed a sort of auto-fiction in which Ma subjects her self-insert to various thought experiments, the layers continue to form. The collection makes us ask ourselves what it means to be a woman, or an immigrant, or a child, or a partner, or, in the narrators’ cases, all of the above.

More than once the phrase “When you play stupid games, you win stupid prizes” transcends one story and enters another. What games, though? A competition between women on who is thinner, for a mother’s approval, a man’s love, or validity in society as female and a person of color? The answer is all of the above, and the “stupid prizes” pile up, tallied by Ma, not as a cautionary tale but as an inevitability of what a person must go through to simply exist today. Ma’s narrator(s) could be seen as unphased by their heritage, but instead appear beleaguered, forced into a state of inertia by circumstances outside of their control, a perpetual lethargy: exhausted by prejudice, by being seen as a novelty at best and a problem in need of a solution at worst. While often the weariness has a specific root, like ancestry, womanhood, or victimhood, the intuitive nature of the storytelling feels inclusive of the weariness of all marginalized bodies, including BIPOC, LGBTQ, women, immigrants, and the impoverished.

In “Yeti Lovemaking,” details like smoking American Spirits or smelling of Old Spice evoke memories within the narrator (and perhaps some readers) of a pattern of men dated or slept with, only for him to reveal his true colors later, that all too familiar feeling of being in a compromising position and feeling bamboozled. But what if a literal abominable snowman pouring you a drink in his high-rise apartment is no better or no worse than your ex-boyfriend? At least the yeti provides an informational pamphlet laying out warnings and best practices for engagement, all cards on the table. Meanwhile, in stories like “Returning” and “Office Hours” intimacy and sex are separated from one another, the most scandalous acts being closeness and vulnerability, not copulation, which, if it occurs at all, is unsatisfying and underwhelming. In “Office Hours” the story is told outside of first person, which adds a layer of distance between the subject, Marie’s, feelings of desire and intimacy, whereas in other stories the experiences feel closer to the reader, even if still strained. In “Tomorrow,” the only other story told in third person, Eve too struggles with intimacy and has to bear the consequences of a long relationship with a man she could not connect to even after years of engagement. In these kinds of stories, we see varying degrees of the same problem: an assumption that a woman should be coupled with a man, but a feeling of emptiness and disassociation that lingers throughout the relationships.

In “Tomorrow” the third person point of view follows Eve through a United States that resembles our own but is falling into disarray. America is no longer a top-tier, first-world power—insurance no longer covers basic medical necessities like ambulance rides or the removal of an IUD, the economy is suffering from one collapse after another, and unemployment is at an all-time high—has become a dumping ground for more successful first-world waste. Working for a government agency that monitors social media accounts world-wide to determine how the nation is perceived globally, Eve finds herself pregnant and while trying to decide whether she will terminate the pregnancy, the arm of her fetus falls out between her legs. An uninterested doctor who double checks his resources on WebMD is not alarmed and tells her she and the baby will be fine, to just leave the arm dangling, washing it occasionally. If this United States and our current one were a Venn diagram, the crossover would include a generation who have come to terms with dying under significant debt, receding birth rates in the shadow of economic instability, and terminal climate change. In theme with the rest of the collection, Eve experiences a range of complex emotions about her status as the child of immigrants, including her dissolution with the “land of opportunities,” expressing relief at the passing of her parents and their expectations with them.

Swimming in the otherworldly, implausible plot points are brutally honest and relatable moments between the narrators and those around them, and even more impactful are the moments alone with their thoughts. Ma describes what it is to be alone but unaware that you are lonely, so engrossed in your own obsessive need to contain yourself in routine and regimen, to worry that everyone around you will see who you really are—odd, unwieldy, and too much—along with the way these unrealistic boxes we force ourselves into have a common through line of the childhoods, parents, friendships, and romances creating the molds we eventually settle into, even in solitude.