One of the things that makes Ling Ma’s stories in Bliss Montage so extraordinary is her ability to blend keen perceptions of human relationships with fantasy elements that somehow make the fantastic an intimate part of ordinary life. There is the house in “LA” the narrator shares with a hundred ex-boyfriends, the pickup date in “Yeti Lovemaking” who turns out to be a yeti in a human suit, the drug in “G” that makes the body literally disappear, and the opening in the closet of a college professor in “Office Hours” that leads to another world. The fantasy elements in Bliss Montage don’t take you out of this world but rather plunge you more deeply into the confused strivings of the characters in this one.
Each of Ling Ma’s stories works by building resemblances, interweaving several stories of different relationships to bring out truths about each one that otherwise might slip by. She doesn’t try to build to a knock-out punch but closes many stories at a heightened moment that leaves you on edge and having to think back over how the different strands of narrative have led you to that point.
In “Returning” the narrator quotes her husband describing fiction to his college class. ” ‘Fiction can be a space for the alternate self,’ he would tell them … ‘It often serves as a fantasy space for our other selves.’ ” In a sense, that is a description of what Ling Ma is doing in Bliss Montage, except that she focuses on the other selves trying to be born and often catches them (and stops) just as they are emerging. The stopping at those crucial moments can be frustrating for a reader, but for me those moments capture a key idea, that most of the characters, while sharply perceptive in their thoughts about each other, almost never can speak their truths face to face. They can never express who they are or what they want.
There is the lover in “Tomorrow”who speaks warm and endearing things to the narrator but only when he thinks she is asleep, and sends an email that turns into a functional document when he’d been thinking of a loving dream of the narrator because all his tender thoughts turn to “cement” when he tries to express them. Or the husband in “LA” who speaks in dollar signs. Or the narrator in “G” who tries to speak when invisible under the drug’s influence and only makes moaning sounds. Perhaps the most successful intimate communication occurs in “Yeti Lovemaking” when the Yeti and the narrator express themselves in wordless mating calls, his like an “oceanic bass line that churned up seabeds,” hers “like a shriek down a hall of mirrors” until hitting a pitch that only the two of them could hear.
Many of the stories are about breaking free of others’ expectations of what the narrator’s life should be. In most cases, the narrator is the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents who have rigid ideas of what she should do and be.They succeed in leading quite different lives of their own but still carry the voices and judgment of their parents within them. Almost all the characters in Bliss Montage are searching for a new beginning, a new self. The exception is the yeti in “Yeti Lovemaking,” a being that has stopped evolving. He is always himself but lives in the human world where he has to hide his true self most of the time.
The difficulty of birthing a new self parallels a real birth in “Tomorrow,” in which a woman, having broken off with a boyfriend and thinking herself too old to bear a child, finds she is pregnant. Bizarrely enough, one day she finds the baby’s arm extending out of her body, and she has to adapt to this strange presence as the arm responds to its environment. The story is set in a near future America, the dream of her immigrant parents, at a time of decline when the country cannot maintain either its great economy or its worldwide power. It is a country that itself needs a rebirth. The narrator is searching for a home, wants to leave her job in DC where she was working for her ex-boyfriend, tries to seek relief on a vacation, then returns to her home country, China, to stay with her aunt. But everything looks unfamiliar there as well, and when her aunt sees what is happening with the baby, she is horrified and forces her out of her home. There seems to be no familiar place or self to settle into.
“Returning” is perhaps my favorite story for its blending of the present journey the narrator takes with her estranged husband to the fictional country of his birth (a vaguely eastern European Garboza) and her experiences with her friend and occasional lover named only Y. The husband wants to take part in a strange ceremony of healing and rebirth in which each participant is buried in the ground overnight. He abandons her at the airport in this strange country, leaving her to find her own way to the site of the ceremony. During that evening when she is stranded, she thinks about her relationship with Y which is typically a confusion of friendship, distant lovemaking and terse communication. Her internal wandering between memory and present in which she yearns for an always elusive clarity and closeness leads to a poignant moment in which the need is clear but there is no final breakthrough.
Well, I talk about a favorite, but for me all eight stories of Bliss Montage are unforgettable. Each one dances on the edge of fantasy, the surreal, the satiric and the profoundly moving need for love and selfhood. The fact that Ling Ma’s characters are always on the verge of fulfilling themselves but never quite getting there makes this collection all the more true to life.
I want to thank Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Net Galley for an advance review copy of Bliss Montage as the basis for this review, which reflects solely my own opinions.