The author’s latest collection tries to escape the market and literary clichés—but is this a cliché in itself?
“Fiction can be a space for an alternate self,” an English professor informs a class in “Office Hours,” one of the stories in Ling Ma’s new collection Bliss Montage. Ma’s protagonists are all fascinated with the possibility of using narrative to fall out of narrative; they each try to follow some odd quirk of storytelling into an alternate story and an alternate life. Those lives, though, often feel less like liberation and more like stasis. Ma’s characters—and Ma herself—struggle with the possibility that the only way to escape expectations is to embrace paralysis.
Ma’s first novel, Severance, published in 2018, explored similar themes. That book—eerily foreshadowing COVID—was about a zombie-like plague called Shen Fever which leads its victims to run through their old routines over and over again. They set tables and they try on clothes, as they did in life—but this time, without meaning.
Shen Fever is a metaphor for the emptiness of corporate and consumer culture, where people perform various office tasks mechanically even though their frontal lobes no longer function. But the disease is also, contradictorily, a refutation of those corporate demands. Those suffering from Shen Fever cease to work and be productive. Like Herman Melville’s Bartleby, who “prefers not to,” they follow their own obsessions without regard for what they’re supposed to be doing. As people disconnect from society’s demands, the world collapses in slow motion.
The stories in Bliss Montage are mostly smaller scale, and don’t involve the end of everything. But the mixture of fear and fascination with exiting one’s own life remains Ma’s central obsession.
In “Office Hours,” a discontented film studies professor discovers a Narnia-like hole in her office closet, which leads to a wooded area where time seems to stand still; it’s always night, the weather is always warm, coffee never cools. In “G,” the narrator and a friend take a drug called G, which turns them invisible. The appeal is the ecstasy of no longer being an object to another’s subjectivity. “No one looks at you, no one assesses you. It lifts the tiny anvil of self-consciousness. You can go anywhere, unimpeded by the microaggressions of strangers…”
“Like Bartleby’s protest, literary fiction can sometimes feel like a sit-down strike with no demands.”
As the reference to microaggressions suggests, part of the reason the narrator feels constricted by narrative is that she—like Ma’s other protagonists—is Chinese-American. Ethnicity and gender aren’t necessarily central to every story, but they are always there somewhere, off to the side, subtly or not-so-subtly pulling the protagonists off to the side, too. In “Office Hours,” the professor wants to drop into the world of the closet in part to escape the condescension and low-key sexism of a smug white male colleague. Bliss Montage’s first story, “Los Angeles,” is a dream-like tale about a woman who lives in a house with her hundred ex-boyfriends. It’s a metaphor for how everyone lives with their past. But it’s also a metaphor for how this woman, in particular, feels displaced in her own existence by the one boyfriend who beat her.
“Los Angeles” ends with the protagonist chasing her abusive ex, Adam. “I want to barf on him and coat him in my stinging acids,” she says, in a line that nicely captures Ma’s gift for anatomized rage and poetic self-disgust. But Adam is elusive. The story ends with the protagonist running, following her anger and confusion out of her own life.
The trope of pursuit, snapped off by the end of the story, is a way to talk about a life snapped off by violence, trauma, or alienation. It’s also, though, a commentary on—or manipulation of—genre.
High-speed chases are a staple of pulp, as is violent conflict. Ling Ma plays with the conventions of the genre, as she did with zombies in Severance. There are fantasy portals in “Office Hours,” cyberpunk drugs in “G,” urban fantasy monster romances in “Yeti Lovemaking,” and future dystopias in “Tomorrow.” These pulp gestures gear up and then close down, ending without resolution. In the last lines of each story, protagonists fail to start a journey, or wait for someone to speak. “Office Hours” and “G” both conclude with the non-revelation that the protagonist is her own doppelgänger. She becomes someone else—a fictional self, or perhaps the real self—who fiction cannot follow.
The impulse to escape narrative is also an impulse to escape genre, and to sink pulp plots into a bog of confusion, ambiguity, and Bartleby-ish refusal. The problem is that this anti-narrative is also, by this point, fairly familiar. Literary fiction often positions itself as an alternative to genre, or as a refusal of it. Trying to escape cliché and the market through paralysis has become, in many ways, its own cliché—and even its own market. Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which the main character tries to sleep her way out of existence, is perhaps the most iconic example. Like Bartleby’s protest, literary fiction can sometimes feel like a sit-down strike with no demands.
“To escape from narrative is to be no one, because people live in each other, for worse and sometimes for better.”
The one story in which Ma does manage to go somewhere out of her life (that is not nowhere) is in “Peking Duck,” the volume’s strongest piece. The story starts with a typical Ma protagonist: She’s a young Chinese-American woman, dissatisfied and eager to use fiction to be someone else. She talks about how in first grade, she used to lie to her classmates, telling them she lived in a nicer house than she did. She blames this on the English language, which she can say anything in, since “it is the language in which [she has] nothing to lose.” The implication is that she lies in English because she hopes to be someone different in English, leaving her Chinese heritage and story behind.
But instead of following the main character into an alternate, fictional (less Chinese?) non-self, the story gets hijacked. The protagonist writes a piece for a workshop about how her mother, a babysitter, passively let a salesman enter the house where she worked, threatening her. Another Asian student criticizes the piece as promoting stereotypes. And suddenly, we are in a reworked version, told from the mother’s perspective. And the mother—unlike many of Ma’s protagonists—is not passive at all.
As in the other stories in the volume, Ma’s narrator escapes from herself. But instead of leading to inertia, the flight from narrative in “Peking Duck” looks more like revision or reimagining. Ma writes herself out of one person’s story to put herself in another’s.
Fiction is often praised for its ability to allow us to imagine and identify with other lives. So in some sense, in “Peking Duck,” Ma is embracing—or escaping into—an older literary tradition of character-building by way of storytelling. The way the text holds on to both selves at once, though, means the reader is always aware that it’s the narrator inside her mother, even as you’re encouraged to imagine the mother imagining the interiority of her daughter. They are held in each other by the act of writing each other.
To escape from narrative is to be no one, because people live in each other, for worse and sometimes for better. That’s not entirely an original story. But Ma’s telling takes you to some place, and some self, that feels new.