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‘Bliss Montage’ Review: Ling Ma’s Second Release Exceeds High Expectations

5 Stars

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Ling Ma made a bold entrance into the literary world with the release of “Severance” in 2018. Her debut novel received praise from critics and casual readers alike, earning a spot on the first syllabus 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 era or a one-hit wonder. In September, Ma released “Bliss Montage,” a collection of short stories that grapple with fundamental human experiences through a blend of fantasy and reality. The collection far exceeds the expectations set by “Severance” and reaffirms Ma's brilliance.

Ma’s writing in “Bliss Montage” is descriptive but not excessive. Her 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 avoids flat language, employing striking imagery in even the most mundane moments to craft an immersive sensory experience. Whether describing the “raptor rasp” of someone’s voice, the sensation of “scalding” water while hand-washing dishes, or a character whose scent is “redolent of a tangy pine,” Ma’s mastery of language entices readers to step into her narrative world.

The collection excels in many ways, but one of the most notable is its achievement of balance. The stories are both serious and absurd, dark and humorous, set in the past and present. Ma’s protagonists are burdened by the weight of negative emotions like fear, grief, and discomfort, but their narratives are also lightened by fantastical moments. In “Los Angeles,” for instance, the narrator must navigate the tensions of her marriage while sharing a mansion with 100 ex-boyfriends. In “Yeti Lovemaking,” the narrator is grieving a past relationship when she goes home with a man who reveals himself to be not human, but a yeti that follows a plant-based diet. Ma explores authentic experiences in unrealistic contexts. She gives herself room to experiment with characters, setting, and plot in ways that would be impossible within the confines of reality.

The structure of each story is made dynamic and engaging by alternations between the past and present. Ma is not reckless when transitioning from one period of time to the next; she is careful, clear, and considerate of readers who may otherwise get lost. Each detour into the past clarifies what is happening at present, providing background that helps to explain complex interactions between characters.

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Ma’s vivid writing style and deliberate composition make her stories easy to follow. At the same time, she keeps certain elements of narratives shrouded in mystery. In “Los Angeles,” she replaces the spoken words of the narrator’s husband with dollar signs. Readers can infer what he says based on the length of his quote or the narrator’s responses, but his exact statements are never revealed, left up to the audience’s imagination. Ma also withholds the names of some characters; she refers to them by the role they serve, such as “the Husband” or “the Professor.” This decision gives 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 pull from their own lives to build upon Ma’s nonspecific descriptions and cultivate more rounded characters.

Also shrouded in mystery are the stories’ endings. This is not a book for people who require closure. Ma doesn’t tie up loose ends; instead, she concludes stories with a scene that could lead the characters in a number of different directions. By the end of the collection, it feels like her characters are still out there, picking up where her writing left off and navigating the narrative world that she has cleverly left open for imagination. But this ambiguity is more exciting than frustrating — it makes the collection interactive, forcing readers to engage with rather than passively absorb the text.

Ma further demonstrates her 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 are granted access to a piece from the narrator’s short story collection, which displays persimmons on its cover — the cover of Ma’s collection is a close-up shot of vibrant oranges — and comments on the Chinese-American experience. The connections between the real-life release of “Bliss Montage” and the fictional collection in “Peking Duck,” along with other nuanced links between Ma’s stories and her personal background, provide a satisfying series of revelations for attentive readers.

In “Bliss Montage,” Ma proves herself as an esteemed voice of the 21st century. The collection is a poignant criticism of capitalism, racism, academia, gendered expectations, and the world’s response to climate change. It is an exemplary work of literature, composed with talent and purpose. The experience of reading Ma’s latest collection can best be described by a word taken straight from its title: bliss.

—Staff writer Nina M. Foster can be reached at nina.foster@thecrimson.com.

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