Don’t stay where you’re not wanted. In Ling Ma’s short story collection Bliss Montage, her characters learn this the hard way. Or at least, some of them do. These eight stories—most of which are speculative fiction—explore themes that readers already know from Ma’s novel Severance: the immigrant and first-generation experience, navigating abuse and neglect in romantic relationships, and surviving late-stage capitalism.
Sometimes with short story collections, there is a standout crowd pleaser, maybe one or two stories that you expect everyone will be talking about. But the prose is so strong, and these stories are all so different, so it’s tough to say which is the one that people will be talking about. (For the record: this is a good thing.) Ghosting, in different forms, pops up in “Returning” and “G.” The rituals of academia are covered in stories “Office Hours” and “Peking Duck.” The damage left by abusive partners lingers in “Los Angeles” and “Oranges.” Most of these stories feature pairs in imbalance—sacrifices are made that shouldn’t be, or people are unconcerned when they should be—but it manifests differently, and in different ways, in each story. There’s also a lot of leaving: leaving a country, leaving a friend, leaving a partner, leaving a job.
Each story isn’t just about just one thing, however. As mentioned, “G” is about ghosting—figuratively trying to cut off contact, and literally becoming a ghost—but it’s also about female friendships. Which can be complicated and, like drugs, unhealthy to the point where it’s difficult to cut yourself off, or where they can become your identity. It’s about the relationships women have with their bodies and people’s expectations of them, similarly explored in stories like “Real Women Have Bodies” by Carmen Maria Machado or “The Pill” by Meg Elison. And it is, like many of the stories in this collection, about the complications, and expectations, of being raised in the US by Chinese parents. Beatrice, the main character in “G,” “could be Chinese thin too if [she wanted],” her mother tells her that the straight-A, delicate, piano-playing Bonnie “is the type of girl [she] should be friends with.” Telling Beatrice “what kind of makeup to use” is one of the few times she expresses any real interest in her daughter, and the complexities of her mother-daughter relationship lead to the similarly unhappy frenemyship with enabling, toxic Bonnie.
“Peking Duck” is also from the POV of a Chinese-American woman who immigrated to the US when she was a young child. There is a humiliating scene in which the now-adult main character shares a short story, closely based on her mother’s real-life experience, in her creative writing class. Her classmates’ consensus is that the story relies too much on Asian stereotypes. It’s a double nightmare: white people telling you that your (traumatizing) lived experience is a stereotype, and having your story ripped apart in an MFA workshop. Because “Peking Duck” has so many layers—and because of the reveal of sorts at the end, the story-within-a-story that impacted everything we’ve read about before—it’s worth a re-read.
Other short story writers often cast their characters in cost-free worlds where conflicts take place in economic and jobless vacuums. Not Ma. In Bliss Montage, it’s not that money and love and race are all separate concepts that can cause problems; they influence each other. In “Los Angeles,” the main character’s successful but distant husband speaks only in dollar signs. In “Tomorrow,” a newly pregnant main character weighs the financial realities of raising a baby, which is difficult even though she has the comforts of middle-class assets like a condo and retirement accounts.
In “Office Hours,” Marie, student-turned-professor-at-her-alma-mater, finds a magic door, not unlike that in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, in her faculty office. Ma succinctly describes how Marie experiences one of many professional disadvantages faced by first-generation scholars: “Her default position was that of a dog fighting out of a corner. For much of her adult life, she had assumed the defensive crouch, tensed to prove herself against all odds at all times. She did not have the assurance, like many of her peers, that if one thing didn’t work out, there would always be something else.” Marie’s earlier experience as a low-income student was not much better:
“There was no sofa in her apartment, no bed. She slept on an inflatable mattress, reinforced nightly with a bike pump. Her parents had remortgaged their house to afford her private-college tuition, and she didn’t ask for more. With her wages shelving books at the library, she subsisted on spaghetti and apples. These were supplemented by the appetizer spreads laid out at receptions following English department events… On weekends, there was usually a party. Her classmates, freed from their wealthy families, cosplayed as struggling intellectuals.”
I could manipulate the way I describe the stories to make them seem melodramatic or edgy. “Yeti Lovemaking” is about fucking a beast. “Oranges” shows a woman stalking her abusive ex. A fetus’s arm sticks out of a woman’s vagina in “Tomorrow.” But that would be a sin of omission. That’s what these stories have, but that betrays what these stories are really about. They reflect the real pains and anxieties of family, romantic, and work relationships.
Bliss Montage by Ling Ma is available at most bookstores and through the publisher’s website. Register here for the launch party on October 26, 7 p.m. CT at Women and Children First.