review of Ling Ma’s short story collection Bliss Montage

There’s something interesting in every one of these stories, even the ones I don’t really know how to interpret. “Los Angeles” falls into that category. The narrator shares a giant house with her husband and 100 ex-boyfriends (who are presumably allegorical but apparently not merely metaphorical). “I first met the Husband on”, she says, and in place of all his dialogue the text simply prints currency symbols. Initially this seems to imply that he’s obsessed with money, but later it seems more like a commentary on the role she has slotted him into: a source of funds and stability, not really seen as a person.

“Los Angeles” is one of three stories in which the protagonist is drawn, in some way, to a person who has abused her. Here, she seems to feel that it’s her personal responsibility (or entitlement?) to punish him or reign him in after he abuses others. When the cops tell her to “let us find him”, she objects, “But he’s my ex-boyfriend.” She is perhaps finally allowing a long-suppressed desire for vengeance to surface:

I really, really want to catch him. I want to masticate him with my teeth. I want to barf on him and coat him in my stinging acids. I want to unleash a million babies inside him and burden him with their upbringing.

In “Oranges”, the protagonist seems driven more by a desire to understand her abuser, a man who beat her and then - in her presence - called his mom to talk about it.

The details of that night were so gothic, they strained credulity.

She sees some connection between his passivity in much of life - such as refusing to ask for a replacement when he accidentally drops and loses an orange he just paid for at a market - and his sporadic violence. I take a little offense at this; I wouldn’t have asked for another orange either, and I don’t think that’s a sign that I’m some sort of ticking time-bomb. But anyway, her main revelation may be more about the futility of seeking any kind of closure from the man. He not only shows no sign of changing, he shows no capacity to have any kind of meaningful conversation about his behavior:

It was such an open expression, a child’s face. He didn’t look angry or bitter or violent. Nor did he look guilty or remorseful or ashamed. He just looked trapped.

In “G” - a story featuring a drug that makes you literally invisible - the abuser Bonnie is a friend who the protagonist feels unable to replace:

How to explain that I didn’t have very many close Chinese friends. That, growing up among immigrant parents who pitilessly pitted the second-gen kids against one another—comparing our test scores, recital performances, college acceptances, physical appearances—my friendships with peers from that community were especially fraught. That Bonnie was the only one I kept in touch with from that time.

“Yeti Lovemaking” is one of my favorites from the collection, simply for the absurd mental image of a yeti handing out a pamphlet about how to have sex with a yeti to someone he’s trying to have a one-night stand with, and waiting patiently for her to read it.

I’m also fond of “Office Hours”, which initially seems like it’s going to be about a professor (who has one admirable quality: “he never wielded his knowledge as a weapon against his students”) having an affair with a student, but isn’t. It’s about the feeling of limitless possibilities, about remembering “a time when the future could have been anything, been anywhere”, and about the representation of such times in fiction. It’s a bit meta - a story about a film professor discussing films whose themes connect to the story’s. It also has one of the book’s best quotes:

It is in the most surreal situations that a person feels the most present, the closest to reality.

“Peking Duck” is another self-referential story, which features writers debating the appropriateness of taking a story from someone else and retelling it, and one writer doing just that in writing about her mother’s mistreatment as an immigrant. The text transitions directly to a retelling of those events, but whether it’s meant to be the writer character’s account, or the mother character’s account, is unclear.

“Tomorrow” is maybe a story about how the protagonist, who immigrated to the US at a young age, cannot quite feel at home either here or in the country she was born in. Or maybe it’s not about that at all, I’m not really sure. It’s definitely about a pregnant woman wandering around with one of the baby’s arms sticking out of her vagina for months, and I’m probably not going to forget that image any time soon.