The Post-American Surreal

The Post-American Surreal

In Bliss Montage, Ling Ma seeks to re-enchant a world whose catastrophes have grown monotonously real.

(Jan Toorop/Rijksmuseum, 1868)

Bliss Montage: Stories
by Ling Ma
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022, 240 pp.

Ling Ma might be best known as the writer who predicted COVID-19. Her debut novel, Severance, which came out in the summer of 2018, is about a global pandemic originating from a virus in China. Set amid the backdrop of total social collapse, Severance follows the desultory wanderings of Candace Chen, a twenty-something Chinese American millennial who works a monotonous office job and lives in Brooklyn. After the virus functionally turns everyone into zombies, Candace decides to move into her office—dissolving the boundary between leisure and labor by working from home (or, rather, by making the workplace her home). During the start of lockdown, many readers fixated on how the novel’s science-fictional premise eerily resembled our own world. Severance had captured, with uncanny realism, the surprisingly mundane experience of living in a pandemic under late capitalism.

In Bliss Montage, her new collection of short stories, Ma seeks to re-enchant a world whose catastrophes have grown all too monotonously real. The book consists of eight pieces of short fiction that take up the familiar tropes of contemporary life—online dating, temp work—only to distort them beyond recognition. While other works of fiction from the Occupy generation about millennial malaise have similarly emphasized the absurdities of precarity, Ma throws these everyday crises into greater geopolitical relief. The stories in Bliss Montage dilate outward from the American middle class so often foregrounded in the writing of Ma’s contemporaries. The book begins in the United States but concludes with a narrative that, like in Severance, oscillates between America and China.

In “Los Angeles,” the opening story, an unnamed narrator describes her impossibly large mansion in the Hollywood Hills, where she lives with her husband, two kids, and all her exes. “My 100 ex-boyfriends and I hang out every day,” she chirps, before launching into a narrative montage—the book’s first of many—of a joyride through the city. In the evening, “the Husband” comes home from work, and the “ex-boyfriends scatter.” At dinner, the Husband “sips his wine, eats his veal,” while the narrator regales him with “the things my ex-boyfriends and I did all day.”

At first blush, “Los Angeles” reads like an on-the-nose allegory for the emotional hangover of past lovers on present relationships. But midway through, the ex-boyfriends finally start to move out until there’s just one left: Adam. He lingers in the back wing of the mansion, refusing to leave. Adam is what we might call the primal ex-boyfriend—the ghost we struggle to give up. This premise becomes even more gothic when the LAPD eventually comes looking for Adam, who is wanted for a series of domestic assaults. The arrival of the police triggers yet another montage from our narrator—one that is less bliss than bleak. “An image flashes through my mind,” she recalls, “a bloodied pillow, entombed in a suitcase, on the top shelf of the closet in my bedroom.” The story concludes with the narrator running after Adam—throughout the mansion, past its “voluminous acres of hill,” and down “toward the freeway, the traffic lights, cars honking, radios playing a mash of songs about heartbreak and ruin, heartbreak and memory, heartbreak and hatred.” We never learn if she catches him or not. Appropriate to its cinematic setting, “Los Angeles” ends mid-chase.

All the stories in Bliss Montage resolve somewhat like this. Which is to say that they don’t really resolve at all. Instead, their plots peter out, dissolving into mirages, or get left hanging in torturous suspense—sort of like the last scene you remember before waking up from a dream. James Joyce’s short stories famously concluded in moments of epiphanic open-endedness. In Ma’s fiction, epiphanies are in short supply. These endings never congeal into anything resembling revelation or clarity; the characters’ futures are left perilously unclear. 

Ma’s second story, “Oranges,” appears to pick up sometime after “Los Angeles” ends. We find the narrator still trailing an abusive ex-boyfriend named Adam, covertly following him home from work only to find him cohabiting with a new girlfriend. The narrator spies on them from outside “their lit window,” which is “like a cinema screen to me.” When the new girlfriend comes out to ask her what she wants, the narrator tries to warn her of her likely fate. But this proves futile. “I was just a stranger,” the narrator realizes. “Someone who was just a storyteller.” In “Oranges,” Adam remains a serial abuser, but the narrative perspective is not of a woman with 100 ex-boyfriends, but of an ex-girlfriend who is one among the many victims of a single man.

This logic of seriality and substitution is key to Bliss Montage’s surrealism. Ma borrows her title from film scholar Jeanine Basinger’s 1993 book A Woman’s View, which explores the contradictions of female desire in the classical woman’s movie. The “Bliss Montage,” explains Basinger, is that generic sequence where “the leading lady can be seen laughing her head off, dressed in fabulous clothes, racing across the water in a speedboat, her yachtsman lover at her side.” You get the picture. It is “a woman’s small piece of action, her marginal territory of joy.” Though it is fleeting: “the rapid and brief passage of time in which a woman can be happy.” Almost a century after the Golden Age of Hollywood, Ma’s Bliss Montage follows this basic formula; her protagonists are all women who experience intense but necessarily brief flashes of pleasure. Yet if classical Hollywood’s heroines were only able to experience ephemeral joy, then the haunted women in Ma’s stories seem doomed to compulsively repeat scenes of happiness that no longer seem even possible.

While each story in the collection is narratively distinct, they draw on an overlapping system of generic tropes and motifs. These fables all take place in the same bad weather. There’s the abusive ex-boyfriend, the ineffectual husband, the overly familiar older professor, the one-night stand. Individual tales bleed into one another, as Bliss Montage accrues its own montage logic. The stories cohere not through direct narrative causality, but through association, synecdoche, parataxis. Rather than providing any sense of forward progression or momentum, Bliss Montage reads like an extended fever dream, blurred by the warp and wear of the general inhospitability of our global present.

In “G,” the book’s third story, the substitution principle becomes even more literal, as does the impermanence of happiness. The day before she is to leave for a film studies PhD program in California, a woman named Bea and her childhood friend Bonnie take a party drug called “G” that makes them temporarily disembodied and invisible. Bea and Bonnie have long been drifting apart, their relationship largely held together by the common experience of growing up as girls who immigrated to America from China. But even there, the marginal differences are palpable. Bonnie came to America when she was nine, while Bea arrived when she was six—a three-year gap that fatally “made the difference between passing as American and being exposed as [fresh off the boat].” While both “were considered petite by most standards,” reflects Bea, “Bonnie was thin by Chinese standards.” These micro-distinctions, imperceptible to almost everyone but Bea and Bonnie, simultaneously solidify their bond and threaten to collapse its boundaries. Bea and Bonnie are united by their mutual recognition that they are different people. But from the outside, they remain interchangeable—a premise that “G” takes to its natural conclusion. As Bea learns too late, Bonnie has given her a dosage of G that will not simply produce a euphoric out-of-body experience but will ultimately annihilate her body entirely. Bea slowly disappears, allowing Bonnie to incorporate her identity entirely.

As exemplified by “G,” Bliss Montage is narrated from the perspective of over-educated, debt-laden millennials who seem to be undergoing early-onset midlife crises. These characteristics are also what made Severance so relevant both before and at the start of COVID-19—the way it tapped into the zeitgeist of world-weary twenty-somethings aging into an era marked by catastrophe after catastrophe. Yet as with Severance, Bliss Montage revolves around an even more specific character type: the Chinese American millennial woman who was not born in America. The particularities of the contemporary Chinese American diaspora appear throughout these tales with varying degrees of emphasis, and sometimes almost begrudgingly. They are a defining mark of Ma’s heroines, but not necessarily an overdetermining one. In some stories, the reference is so minor it might as well be invisible. But this character type offers a consistent, if not coherent, framework for reading these stories—and it is one that moves to the fore by the book’s end.

Bliss Montage concludes with “Tomorrow,” which features a pregnant Chinese American woman named Eve whose unborn baby’s arm hangs out of her vagina—an increasingly common condition in the story. At one level, the title might be read as an open question about the fate of this unborn child. But Eve’s baby is also a symbol of the broader health of the nation, if not civilization. “The US was no longer number one,” Eve muses. “Migrants no longer rushed its borders. Countries had begun programs of de-Americanizing, severing ties with US companies and businesses.” Yet when Eve decides to quit her job and return to China, the country of her birth appears just as alienating as the one she left behind. De-Americanization has created ghosts of American franchises and businesses back in China as well. This disorientation produces a form of double estrangement—a toggling between two different worlds, each surreal in its own way. Eve’s diasporic condition also points to what distinguishes Ma from other writers of what we might describe as post-2008 financial crisis fiction: she gives texture to the everyday experience of millennial existentialism while also confronting the broader realities of American declinism.

Ma told the New Yorker that she wrote most of the stories in Bliss Montage during the first year of the pandemic. “I was glued to the news, like everyone else, and, of course, the impression was of disaster at various distances creeping in,” she explains. “I worked on these stories at home almost every day, moving slowly and blindly. They ended up being surreal, introspective, and oddly shaped. Many came from my dreams, none of which were about the pandemic. Then the bubble popped. At the end of the year, I returned to my teaching job.”

This could be the ending to a Ling Ma story: the return to the workplace under the hazy gauze of our ongoing anxieties, which persist however we might try to sublimate them. “Everyone expected to die in debt, and had learned not to mind,” Eve reflects in “Tomorrow.” “It was just a fact of living in a country on the decline.” As the past few years have made evident, real life is stranger than fiction—a fact sometimes most evident, counterintuitively, in fiction.

Jane Hu is a critic living in Los Angeles.