Perhaps the novel that seemed most prescient or relevant to the end-of-world times that was 2020 was Ling Ma’s Severance, an apocalyptical satire about a pandemic that starts in China and dooms infected people with carrying out rote tasks ad infinitum. Ma became the “pandemic prophet” in literary circles—attention that Ma was uncomfortable with, allowing her to draw more within herself during 2020 as she tackled her next project Bliss Montage, a book of 8 short stories.
“Bliss montage” or “happy interlude” comes from a term film historian Jeanine Basinger coined in her 1993 book “A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960” where a series of fleeting but happy moments are captured in a female protagonist’s life before the start of the inevitable downturn.
“My entry point into writing fiction is pleasure, a kind of enjoyment that’s not always present in the surface of day-to-day life,” said Ma in an interview with Electric Lit, a nonprofit digital publisher that posts essays, criticisms and literary news. “A story sometimes begins by attempting to inhabit some kind of fantasy. What usually happens is that it turns nightmarish. But the starting point, for me as a writer, is pleasure.”
Bliss Montage contains iterations of stories she had accumulated over many years, their origin often coming from her own dreams. In the past, Ma jumped from one short story to the next, moving on to another idea whenever she got stuck, eventually accumulating a cache of unfinished stories. Her Severance book deal included two books, so it comes as no surprise that Ma revisited these earlier drafts during the lockdown. Apart from two stories (“Los Angeles” and “Yeti Lovemaking”), the rest were completely rewritten.
“I was trying to write stories that I couldn’t really finish,” said Ma in an interview with Nylon, a lifestyle magazine that focuses on pop culture and fashion. “I had all these loose scenes and sketches, so I went back to them during the pandemic. I think because years had passed, I was able to finish them because I had the distance and the perspective to be able to do it in a way that I couldn’t the first time around.”
Ma’s stories are about women drifting in somewhat surreal situations, some of which seem to be driven by an uncertainty as to what they want in life. “Returning” is about a woman who visits her husband’s homeland for the first time, only to be abandoned by her husband and trapped in the airport because he has the carry-on luggage that holds her passport. Though they have come for a festival that has its own dark mysteries surrounding it, a deeper look into the marriage shows unaired dissatisfaction that slowly erodes it, requiring a fix.
“Office Hours” is about a woman who becomes a film studies professor, not necessarily out of interest but convenience. “Her default position was that of a dog fighting out of a corner,” Ma writes. “For most of her adult life, she had assumed this defensive crouch, tensed to prove herself against all odds at all times. She did not have the assurance like many of her peers, that if one thing didn’t work out, there would always be something else.” Though she is not happy with her job, she sticks with it and eventually finds brief moments of respite through an otherworldly secret her old film professor let her in on before he passed away.
“Tomorrow” is about a pregnant single woman unsure of where she belongs. She lives in a less glorified America of the future that pales in comparison to what her parents envisioned when they immigrated there with her in tow. Burdened by her parents’ expectations and living by them even after they had passed on, she needs to decide where she and her unborn son (whose hand sticks out of the nether regions of her body) belong.
Ma also covers a bevy of other topics. She writes about domestic violence in “Los Angeles” and “Oranges.” These stories go hand-in-hand as “Los Angeles” is a surreal way of tackling the topic while “Oranges” is a realistic alternative. She also tackles the complicated relationship between two Chinese Americans who grew up as frenemies in “G” (G is a drug that allows you to become invisible as you get high). In “Peking Duck,” Ma touches on the uncertainty inherent in secondhand storytelling as a mother disagrees with her daughter’s version of a traumatic event the mother had experienced and the daughter had witnessed.
And have I mentioned there is a story called “Yeti Lovemaking”?
To compare these stories to Severance would be unfair as these works are wholly different. Though some of them are infused with the same surreal horror and bizarreness, they are more understated and subtle, giving more of a Rod Serling, Twilight Zone vibe. Though a few stories may feel lacking, it is perhaps Ma’s intent to encourage readers to fill in these unknowns with their own imagination. It is always interesting to see what world Ma creates, and these stories do not disappoint in throwing readers into a twisted version of our own reality.