Bliss Montage by Ling Ma is a collection of stories which focus on the Chinese American and immigrant experience, all of which are wildly surreal. The first story, ‘Los Angeles’, is about a woman who houses a hundred of her ex-boyfriends in their home; ‘G’ is about a drug that can make you invisible; ‘Returning’ is about a couple who goes to a fictional country called Garboza in which people are buried underground and are cured of ailments; and yet even another, ‘Office Hours’, is about a portal in an office that leads to a forest where time doesn’t exist. All these stories force the reader to suspend their disbelief and go along with whatever strangeness that occurs.
Though, what’s interesting in many of these stories, the strangeness is simply taken and not fought against. The story ‘Yeti Lovemaking’ shows, at first, the speaker is confused, but then just moves along as if making love to yetis is part of their life now. Particular stories, such as ‘Los Angeles’, deployed really interesting tactics in storytelling. One of the tactics was how the husband only talked in dollar signs, and was never named, while all the ex-boyfriends were given names and had their own understandable dialogue.
Ma also pulls us out of stories at moments that don’t initially make sense. For example, in ‘Returning’, the story ends with the woman pulling Peter out of the hole and calling both his English and Garbanese name. What we don’t get to see is how the Morning Festival changed Peter, or how they returned to America, or even how their relationship would change. Ma does however, sprinkle in ideas of how the end of the story should be interpreted. Particularly in ‘Returning’, the speaker is a writer who has written a book and describes it as, “’…this couple who spend a lot of time and resources planning for their idealized future, which never comes’…’But then the wife breaks out of the spell, but the husband doesn’t. They become separated on different timelines.’” The novel the speaker is talking about summarizes the fracturing of a couple after one of them gets cryogenically frozen and the other doesn’t. ‘Returning’ has these two parallel stories within it then, where the speaker and Peter are in a rocky patch and the Morning Festival is what might save them, and the couple wanting to both get frozen together but one soon deciding not to. With this read of the story, ‘Returning’ doesn’t need to continue more than it already has gone. The speaker, or more likely Peter who has just been transformed after being in the dirt, will call their relationship off. And the uncovering scene is the first inkling of that change within him.
Other stories do something similar which I found delightful and at times wanting more. It was interesting to see how Ma writes a lot about writers, with stories such as ‘Returning’, ‘Peking Duck’, and ‘Office Hours’ all featuring some iteration of a writer as the main character. Overall, I loved the stories and how vivid and surreal each one of them was.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.