Ling Ma made a bold entry into the literary world with the release of “Severance” in 2018. Her debut novel received acclaim from critics and casual readers, earning a place in the first program of Harvard’s Contemporary Literature course. , Literature Today. But an author’s second publication is what determines whether they will become a defining voice of their time or a one-time bestselling marvel. In September, Ma released “Bliss Montage,” a collection of short stories that tackle fundamental human experiences through a blend of fantasy and reality. The collection far exceeds the expectations set by “Severance” and reaffirms the brilliance of Ma.
Ma’s writing in “Bliss Montage” is descriptive but not overdone. His sentences are often short, but their brevity does not come at the expense of impact. Every word contributes to the narrative, written with intention. She eschews flat language, employing striking images in even the most mundane moments to create an immersive sensory experience. Whether it’s describing the “raptor rasp” of someone’s voice, the feeling of “burning” water when washing dishes by hand, or a character whose scent “smelled of tart pine” , Ma’s fluency in language draws readers into her narrative world. .
The collection excels in many ways, but one of the most remarkable is its balance. The stories are both serious and absurd, dark and humorous, set in the past and the present. Ma’s protagonists are weighed down by the weight of negative emotions like fear, grief, and discomfort, but their stories are also lightened by fantastical moments. In “Los Angeles,” for example, the narrator must navigate the tensions of her marriage while sharing a mansion with 100 ex-boyfriends. In “Yeti Lovemaking”, the narrator mourns a past relationship when she returns home to a man who turns out to be not a human, but a Yeti on a plant-based diet. Ma explores authentic experiences in unrealistic settings. She gives herself the ability to experiment with characters, settings, and plots in ways that would be impossible within the confines of reality.
The structure of each story is made dynamic and engaging by alternating between past and present. Ma is not reckless when transitioning from one time period to another; she is careful, clear, and considerate of readers who might otherwise get lost. Each detour into the past clarifies what is happening now, providing a background that helps explain the complex interactions between the characters.
Ma’s lively writing style and deliberate composition make her stories easy to follow. At the same time, it keeps certain story elements shrouded in mystery. In “Los Angeles”, she replaces the words spoken by the narrator’s husband with dollar signs. Readers can infer what he is saying based on the length of his quote or the narrator’s responses, but his exact statements are never revealed, left to the audience’s imagination. Ma also withholds the names of certain characters; she refers to them by the role they play, such as “husband” or “teacher”. This decision gives the stories a more universal quality. Readers navigating similar circumstances — whether in love, loss, academia, dissatisfaction with identity, or the second-generation Chinese-American experience — can draw on their own life to build on Ma’s non-specific descriptions and cultivate more rounded characters.
The endings of the stories are also shrouded in mystery. This is not a book for people who need closure. Ma does not solve problems; instead, she concludes the stories with a scene that could lead the characters in any number of different directions. By the end of the collection, it feels like her characters are still there, picking up where her writing left off and navigating the narrative world she cleverly left open to the imagination. But this ambiguity is more exciting than frustrating – it makes the collection interactive, forcing readers to engage rather than passively absorb the text.
Ma further demonstrates its thoughtful narrative composition through meta-moments in which the short story collection nods to itself and its author. In “Peking Duck”, the narrator, like Ma, is a writer. Readers have access to a piece of the narrator’s short story collection, which features persimmons on its cover—Ma’s collection cover is a close-up of vibrant oranges—and commentary on the Chinese-American experience. The connections between the actual release of “Bliss Montage” and the fictional “Peking Duck” collection, along with other nuanced connections between Ma’s stories and her personal background, provide a series of satisfying revelations for attentive readers.
In “Bliss Montage”, Ma proves to be an esteemed voice of the 21st century. The collection is a poignant critique of capitalism, racism, academia, gendered expectations and the world’s response to climate change. It is an exemplary literary work, composed with talent and determination. The experience of reading Ma’s latest collection can be best described by a word taken directly from its title: happiness.
—Editor Nina M. Foster can be reached at [email protected]