The debut of Ling Ma, winner of the Kirkus Prize, Breakup, was a literary version of the zombie apocalypse novel. Published in 2018, it was eerily prescient, featuring a deadly disease originating in China that is wiping out people.
Having already written a novel about the pandemic, Ma has found herself during the pandemic producing “surreal, introspective and oddly shaped” stories, some of which have appeared in publications such as Granta, The Atlantic and The New Yorker. “It is in the most surreal situations that a person feels the most present, the closest to reality”, thinks one of his characters.
As Breakupmost of the eight short stories collected in Montage of happiness have a fantastic twist. In “Tomorrow,” a baby’s arm protrudes from a pregnant woman’s vagina — a situation that, while “not ideal,” her doctor admits, is “relatively safe for the baby.” “Office Hours” revolves around a Narnia-esque portal on the wall of a college office. “Yeti Lovemaking” offers a tutorial on interspecies intercourse, which is “difficult and painful at first, but easy once you’ve done it 30+ times. Then it’s like riding a bike.
In “Los Angeles”, a woman shares a mansion with her husband, children and 100 ex-boyfriends. The cute conceit, in which she brings the boyfriends to the Los Angeles County Art Museum and juice bars en masse, takes a brutal turn when one of the exes is revealed to have been physically abusive. It’s a storyline echoed in “Oranges,” in which the narrator is contacted by an ex-boyfriend’s ex-partner who is suing for domestic battery – news she finds “both eye-opening and unsurprising. “. Like all of Ma’s narrators, her delivery is deadpan; the cold tone makes the violence told all the more chilling.
Among Ma’s recurring themes are alienation and immigration. Like the author, many of its protagonists were born in China and emigrated to the United States as children. The “Returning” narrator meets her husband at a literary festival, where they are both part of a panel of immigrant authors, although their novels deal with “very different subjects”. In “G”, two young Asian American women take a recreational drug that renders users invisible and euphoric. One of the women is attracted by the self-effacement that G allows: “He raises the little anvil of self-awareness. You can go anywhere, unhindered by micro-aggressions from strangers. Her friend, meanwhile, uses the Invisibility Cloak for more sinister purposes.
The cover image of Montage of happiness, depicting oranges behind cellophane, suggests gratification just out of reach. The title, we learn in Ma’s acknowledgments, comes from a term coined by film historian Jeanine Basinger. A “happiness montage”, writes Basinger, is a visual representation of a heroine’s brief interlude of happiness in old Hollywood films – “maybe two minutes of joy” before the main man “drops her or something truly awful happening.”
Throughout the collection, Ma skillfully captures the vibe of what she calls ‘pleasure compromise’. The portal in “Office Hours” is not used for Mythic Adventures but for sneaking cigarettes, as smoking is no longer permitted in campus buildings. In “Returning”, a case is more about co-presence than passion. Tucked away in “Peking Duck” is the memory of a nanny, who says her happiest moment was when she found out she was having a daughter. “I thought, now I will be understood.” And yet, she finds that her Americanized daughter does not understand her.
All the stories of Montage of happiness are fully achieved; a few struggle to evolve beyond their premise. “Yeti Lovemaking,” for one, is reminiscent of Rachel Ingalls’ 1982 cult classic short story Ms Caliban, in which a housewife has a love affair with an amphibious sea creature, while lacking Ingalls’ stakes over the frogman hunted by the authorities. But as an observer who immigrated as a child, Ma offers an astute insider-outsider perspective and keen eye for detail.
With an affinity for ambiguous endings, Ma doesn’t always offer readers a resolution. In a self-referential nod, “Office Hours” features a student protesting against the open conclusion of a film. “It feels like an escape,” he says. This may be less of an escape than an opt-out, suggests his teacher, asking him to think about what the film is trying to refute. Ma’s fiction places us in dystopian yet familiar situations that illuminate absurdities. As Breakup Using mall zombies to critique consumerism and office culture, these stories alter the everyday to allow us to question the mirages that shape our reality.
Montage of happiness: Stories by Ling Ma, Text Publishing Company £10.99, 240 pages
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Coffee