And so it goes: every relationship is a story, though what really happened can never be fully captured by the words we commit to paper. Ling Ma’s unsettling short story collection, Bliss Montage, is interested precisely in this gap between intimacy and its narration. The stories examine a range of relationships — with one’s abusive ex-boyfriend, jealous best friend, overly familiar professor, stoic mother, and supposed homeland.
The first story in Bliss Montage, “Los Angeles,” opens with an uncanny setting: a woman lives in an L.A. house with her “Husband” (always capitalized, no name) in one wing, her kids in another, and 100 ex-boyfriends in the third. Her Husband speaks in dollar signs (“$$$$”); she and her ex-boyfriends drive around Los Angeles, visiting LACMA, shopping, and sipping golden milk. “Los Angeles” reminded me of Gogol’s short story “The Nose” (1836), in which Major Kovalyov, a mid-ranking Russian official, wakes up one morning to find that his nose has disappeared. The story follows Kovalyov as he chases his nose around Saint Petersburg and attempts in vain to return it to his face. The sentences in “The Nose” are grammatically correct but don’t quite cohere — it is difficult to conjure a mental image of what exactly transpires in the story. What does it look like not to have a nose? What does it mean to catch sight of one’s nose walking across the street in the uniform of a high-ranking officer? Likewise, language loses meaning in “Los Angeles.” How does the narrator drive around with her 100 ex-boyfriends? What does it sound like to speak in dollar signs? “Los Angeles” dwells in the gap between the signifier and the signified to show, simultaneously, the capacity and inadequacy of language to render reality — the way the past lingers in the present, closure always hovering just beyond our grasp.
The surrealism of “Los Angeles” resonates throughout the collection. The shortest story, “Yeti Lovemaking,” is narrated by a woman who has a one-night stand with a yeti after the end of a relationship. “Making love with a yeti is difficult and painful at first,” the story begins, “but easy once you’ve done it more than thirty times. Then it’s like riding a bike. The human body learns. It adapts. The skin toughens, capillaries become less prone to breakage.” “Yeti Lovemaking” leaves us with more questions than answers. And yet, as the protagonist of another short story in the collection recalls her professor saying, “It is in the most surreal situations that a person feels the most present, the closest to reality.” The moments when Bliss Montage veers furthest away from realism are also moments when we catch sight of startling glimmers of truth. Rebound sex with strangers is mostly unpleasant; oftentimes, it hurts. But you do it anyway, and — after enough times of sitting at one a.m. in the bathrooms of men you’ve just met — you become almost immune to its discomforts.
While the fissure between language and life inheres in these attempts to narrate romantic relationships, it also characterizes Ma’s descriptions of friendships. In “G,” a Chinese American woman, Bea, takes the eponymous drug with a childhood friend, Bonnie, the night before she is due to move across the country. G takes on a range of metaphorical valences as the story unfurls. The sense of weightlessness caused by the drug resonates with the pressure Bonnie places on Bea to eat less. G renders its ingester invisible, which I read as a physical incarnation of feeling washed out next to one’s strong-willed best friend. The invisibility induced by G further evokes the assimilation into whiteness, especially as remedies for an overdose include chili peppers, hot sauce, “Mexican and Szechuan cuisines,” or “[w]hatever pushes [blood] closer to the skin, surfacing color back into your cheeks, making you look like a real, live, flesh-and-blood person.” The metaphorical meanings of G multiply throughout the story, overlaying themes and affects, delicately rendering a friendship between Chinese American girls that is as intimate as it is dangerous. Similarly, other speculative symbols throughout Bliss Montage point to multiple referents, a proliferation of metaphors and meanings that imitates the way in which symbols — and language itself, which is, after all, a symbol system — operate in the world.
Bliss Montage nods at trending themes in contemporary fiction as it pursues its own investigations with quiet assurance. In “Office Hours,” Marie, an undergraduate student, develops an ambiguous relationship with her film studies professor (referred to throughout the story only as “the Professor”). She spends hours chain-smoking on his sofa, listening to him complain about the academy. The premise of the older-man/younger-woman relationship is an evergreen premise of literary fiction, revived recently in light of the #MeToo movement, and Ma winks at the subgenre. Like other texts of this ilk, “Office Hours” flirts with the autobiographical in its depiction of relationships that we frown upon publicly even as we can’t help but Google for details privately: the story appears to be set in a fictionalized version of the University of Chicago, which Ma attended for her undergraduate degree, and like Marie, Ma also teaches at her alma mater.
“Office Hours” seems less interested in indicting relationships characterized by power disparity than in exploring their ambivalence, both affective and ethical. When Marie eventually becomes a film studies professor herself, facing distasteful colleagues of her own, the Professor (now emeritus) shows her a world beyond a portal at the back of a closet in the office she inherits from him. The world exists outside time, not so much threatening as simply eerie. One might read it as the spatial embodiment of the relationship between Marie and the Professor: an alternate universe that only the two of them inhabit, not obviously sinister but disquieting in its intimacy. And yet, it’s clear that the world behind the closet is also a gift: it becomes an escape for Marie from the drudgeries of work, its temporal stillness offering a respite from the pressures of an academic career that is governed by an ever-ticking tenure clock.
In an excellent essay for The Yale Review, Maggie Doherty observes that recent novels responding to the #MeToo movement use metafictional techniques to explore what writing can (or cannot) do to reassert control in relationships governed by obvious power disparities. Ma turns to the metafictional in Bliss Montage, but not in “Office Hours.” Instead, in “Peking Duck,” we find narratives nested like Russian dolls, a formal technique the author uses to probe the power dynamics at play when writing about one’s immigrant parents. Most of “Peking Duck” is narrated by a second-generation Chinese American woman. A budding writer, she presents a short story in an MFA workshop about her mother’s experience of being harassed by a traveling salesman while working as a nanny. Upon reading the story, her mother disagrees with how the situation has been portrayed. The final section, in a departure from the rest of the story, is narrated from the point of view of a Chinese woman who works as a nanny for a wealthy family.
The inequity under scrutiny in “Peking Duck” is not of gender or class but of English literacy. The story is reminiscent of Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry (2018), in which the power disparity between a young female writer and a famous, much older male novelist is juxtaposed with that of the young writer and a character in her novel, an Iraqi American economist who attempts to travel to Kurdistan in the middle of the war on terror. But where Asymmetry attends to the ethics of writing about ethnic others, “Peking Duck” scrutinizes the practice of writing about one’s parents, a staple of Asian American literature that both fiction and nonfiction writers continue to deploy — consider, from 2021 alone, Kat Chow’s Seeing Ghosts, Pik-Shuen Fung’s Ghost Forest, Qian Julie Wang’s Beautiful Country, Anna Qu’s Made in China, and, of course, Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart. By leaving unanswered the question of which parts of the story are real and which parts fictional, Ma poses foundational questions related to the ethics of literature, especially for Asian American writers: Who gets to tell a story? What do we owe to the people we write about?
In Bliss Montage, the frictions — what Lauren Berlant calls the “inconvenience” — of being with other people are inflected through the sexualized and racialized figure of the Chinese American woman. “Peking Duck” includes the most obvious example, but themes of race and gender emerge in other stories as well. In “Oranges,” for instance, an ex-boyfriend mentions offhandedly that his mother “was just saying the most racist stuff about Asians” to the Chinese American narrator. In “G,” Bea strives to distance herself from Bonnie — a more recent arrival to the United States — even as their shared community draws them together. Ma’s fiction is deeply aware of how being a Chinese American woman might influence one’s experience of friendship, romantic entanglements, and familial relationships. But she never sacrifices the story to score a pat point about race or gender. What emerges instead is a much more disconcerting meditation on the permeability of the boundary between intimacy and violence.
By stretching the comprehensibility of language, playing with surrealist imagery, and experimenting with formal conceits, Ma’s collection explores how fiction might respond to pressing questions of contemporary politics. As Namwali Serpell reminds us, “the novel does not guide or imitate readers’ moral values; it unsettles them.” Bliss Montage invites us to consider that fiction could be less invested in solutions and more curious about unmooring. When I finished reading Bliss Montage, I felt disoriented, adrift in a sea of indeterminacy — which is exactly why I wanted to turn back to the first page and read the collection all over again.
Kathy Chow is an assistant editor at The Yale Review and a PhD candidate in religious studies at Yale University. She hails from Taiwan and currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.