The term “bliss montage” was coined by film theorist Jeanine Basinger. It describes the brief intervals of happiness permitted to leading ladies in the old Hollywood genre of the “woman’s film”; it is “a woman’s small piece of action, her marginal territory of joy.” This cinematic term may at first seem an odd title for Ling Ma’s often bleak and decidedly literary debut short story collection, but the bliss montage is an expressly temporary state of affairs, the snatch of pleasure claimed before a puritanical narrative brings things crashing down around its recipient. Ma has identified “compromised pleasure” as a key theme of the collection, and the sense of brief and vivid joys set against a darker, more unsettling backdrop can be keenly felt throughout the book’s eight stories.
The story most explicitly about cinema is “Office Hours,” an examination of its female narrator’s close relationship with her film studies professor that makes an unexpected swerve into portal fantasy. The first part of the story follows the narrator as an undergraduate, meeting for office hours with her professor and “languishing in the amnion of his office.” The year she graduates, he leaves his post. The story picks up again several years later, with the narrator occupying her now-retired professor’s old job, navigating the bullshit of an academic career like “a dog fighting out of a corner.” She meets her old professor at a department function, and the two of them make their way to “his old office, which now happened to be her office.” He reveals a hidden cranny in the office’s closet, a hole in the wall “large enough that a person could easily enter it.”
Ma’s narrator cheekily declares that “On the other side is where this story begins,” but this portal does not promise the thrilling revelations of children’s literature. Its magical abilities initially seem as limited as keeping a cup of coffee warm; it is a dark forest and an empty highway frozen in time, a space which the narrator uses as “a discreet area to smoke.” But after a day spent repeatedly giving the same twenty-minute lecture about The Wizard of Oz and Stalker to batch after batch of university donors LARPing as undergrads, she makes a final trip through the portal and meets with an oblique, troubling vision. “Office Hours” is a complex and inventive story, getting at the strangeness of maturity and the vampiric nature of academia, at once dreamlike and banal.
That sense of the capacity of the weird, even the whimsical, to open windows onto the dark and messy world of adulthood is present in several of Ma’s stories. In “Los Angeles,” a woman lives in a mansion with her one hundred ex-boyfriends and a husband who speaks in dollar signs. In “Returning,” a woman on the verge of breaking up with her husband arrives in a strange land, greeted with an oddly sinister sign reading “THERE ARE NO STRANGERS IN GARBOZA.” The most playful piece on offer is “Yeti Lovemaking,” which has the frankly delicious opening line: “Making love with a yeti is difficult and painful at first, but easy once you’ve done it more than thirty times.”
While several of the stories use the fantastic in this way to illuminate their themes, others make use of painfully authentic details, illustrating the absurd cruelties of their narratives. “Oranges” is the story of a woman reconnecting with her abusive ex—and connecting for the first time with other women he has abused. In a conversation with a fellow ex-girlfriend, she ruefully reflects that “The details of that night were so gothic, they strained credulity,” but when these details do arrive in the narrative it’s with such an awful flourish that they feel pulled directly from life:
“In the morning, he bought me these little gifts,” I continued. “Little apology presents.” He had gone out for a walk, and came back with breakfast and a CD from the record shop.
“He stopped by the record shop?” She scoff-laughed. “What was the album?”
“Exile in Guyville.”
Christine exhaled. “Jesus, the irony.”
“I used to listen to it all the time, afterward.” It didn’t make me love that album any less.
It’s a scene reminiscent of Patricia Lockwood’s poem “Rape Joke,” which concludes with the observation that:
The rape joke is that the next day he gave you Pet Sounds. No really. Pet Sounds. He said he was sorry and then he gave you Pet Sounds. Come on, that’s a little bit funny.
Like in that poem, humour arises in “Oranges” from the shocking inappropriateness of a gift combined with the basic horror of the situation. Far from being unbelievable, these are precisely the kind of cringeworthy choices a self-pitying rapist might make. The story’s grim sting is not the intrusion of pop culture artefacts, but the brutal normality of abuse.
Abuse also forms a crucial part of the backstory in “G,” the tale of two young Asian American women meeting up for a “last hurrah” before the narrator leaves New York for grad school. Friends since childhood, and together all through their undergrad years, the narrator tells us about her friend Bonnie:
When she was eight, she was assaulted in the stairwell of the apartment building where her family lived. This was back in Shanghai. Her family moved to the States the next year. Whether this had to do with the assault, I’m not sure. But if every day you had to pass by the same stairwell where you had been raped, maybe moving to a new country didn’t seem like that dramatic a change.
Normally closed off and self-conscious, Bonnie is forthcoming with the narrator when the two of them take the titular drug, “G,” which renders users invisible as well as creating a euphoric high. While the narrator experiences the drug as a kind of self-negation (she notes that “my adult sense of self formed in the complete absence of my reflection”), Bonnie becomes “a lucid, disembodied voice of compulsive disclosures.” It’s a wonderfully strange premise, taking the standard science-fiction trope of invisibility while using the characters’ differing reactions to inform how they ultimately grow apart. As with the best science-fictional horror stories, there is an air of queasy wrongness from the beginning. When Bonnie talks about coming to visit the narrator at grad school, she points out that “we live in the same city now, and we don’t actually see each other that often.” There is a definite sense that the two of them should not be meeting again.
This comes to a head at the story’s climax, when Bonnie starts to rematerialise and the narrator cries, “I can’t feel myself.” Bonnie has given her a much stronger dose of the drug; she will not return to visibility, and is instead fading away. Bonnie has prevented her from moving on by literally erasing her and her desires. But even in this moment, Bonnie is not quite the archetypal horror villain:
“No, no.” Bonnie was shaking her head, and as she shook, her face began materializing, revealing an expression of dismay and guilt. As soon as I saw her, I knew two things: that she had done this on purpose, and that she was at least a little bit sorry.
The mix of cruelty and empathy in this moment is a potent one indeed, and it instantly catapults “G” from an effective chiller to a touching story of youthful angst. Many of us have felt the pain of our friends moving on and away from us; that shred of sympathy in Bonnie’s malicious intent make her actions all the more horrifying.
A less fantastical sense of irrecoverability is found in “Peking Duck,” perhaps the finest story on offer here. It centres on the relationship between the narrator, an up-and-coming fiction writer, and her mother, a Chinese immigrant to the United States. When she presents to her MFA workshop a short story—a semiautobiographical piece about a Chinese nanny being harassed by a salesman while her daughter looks on—her (largely white) peers shoot down the story as clichéd. The piece is “too well-articulated for a non-English-speaking protagonist”; the narrator has created “a stereotypical representation of a female Chinese immigrant.” The reader may bristle at these casually racist remarks, but when the narrator’s mother reads the story, she too is alienated by it. She protests that “I don’t want to be like the usual Chinese mother, someone who is never satisfied, yells at their children, and keeps saying ai-yah all the time.”
These metafictional jabs are sharp and amusing, but the story kicks into high gear during the final section, in which we are presented with what is either the narrator’s fictional account of her mother’s experiences or her mother’s actual memories. Ma effectively conveys the awkward yet palpable tension of the situation, as a seemingly innocuous salesman bullies his way into the house where the narrator works and forces her to cook a meal for him. The commentary on American racism remains pointed, as the narrator throws together something that is “maybe a terrible stir-fry version of three-cup chicken. What matters is that it passes as Chinese to his taste.” But the most moving sequence comes near the end, as she contemplates her child:
When I first learned I was having a daughter, the family was so disappointed. In China, a boy is always better, if you’re going to have one child. But me, I was secretly happy. A boy, at best, can adore his mother, but a girl can understand her. When the doctor told me it was a girl, I thought, Now I will be understood. That was my happiest moment. The idea of a daughter.
“Peking Duck” is an unfailingly empathetic exploration of the Asian American narrative, aware of its limitations yet fiercely unapologetic about them. At a time when “who has the right to tell this story?” can feel like a question with no clear answer, it is a revelation to see it handled with such humour, grace, and wit. The story is a fitting representative of this rich and capacious collection, a montage which begs to be viewed over and over again.