The strangeness of living in a body is exposed, the absurdity of carrying race and gender on one’s face, all against the backdrop of an America in ruin ... Ma’s meticulously-crafted mood and characterization ... Ma’s gift for endings is evident ... Ma masterfully captures her characters’ double consciousness, always seeing themselves through the white gaze, in stunning and bold new ways ... Even the weaker stories in the book...are redeemed by Ma’s restrained prose style, dry humor, and clever gut-punch endings. But all this technical prowess doesn’t mean the collection lacks a heart. First- and second-generation Americans who might have been invisible for most of their lives are seen and held lovingly in Ma’s fiction.
The women populating these stories are not merely at the center, they are the center. As they move languorously through the world, observing and operating with a cool detachment, their questionable choices — stalking an ex-lover, having sex with a Yeti, living with her husband and 100 ex-boyfriends — fuel the narratives, and heighten their stakes ... The eight wily tales mark the return of an author whose inventive debut, Severance, urgently announced her as a writer worth watching ... an assured follow-up, a striking collection that peddles in the uncanny and the surreal, but it often lacks Severance’s zest. Some stories are confident in their strangeness and ambiguity, a handful feel like promising sketches of sturdier narratives and the rest fall somewhere in between. The connections between them are loose, tethered by similar leads ... Wry, peculiar stories like Los Angeles and Yeti Lovemaking confirm that Ma’s imagination operates on the same chimerical frequency as those of Helen Oyeyemi, Samanta Schweblin, Meng Jin. Each of these stories leans un-self-consciously into the speculative, illuminating Ma’s phantasmagoric interests. They are funny, too ... Despite their nagging loose ends, Ma’s stories stay with you — evidence of a gifted writer curious about the limits of theoretical possibility. They twist and turn in unpredictable ways and although the ride wasn’t always smooth, I never regretted getting on.
Freed of zombies and the monochrome of shock, Ma has more time with these stories for the force of sentiment ... Even a memoir might lapse into explanation, that ruining voice. Ling Ma knows that her silence is what lets her events float in their own logic, eventually stacking up in the space she affords them, cleverly bumped into that one last unified moment of being read.
The deadpan tone of [the] narrator's voice implicitly urges readers to 'just roll with it' and so we do ... Nothing is just one thing in Ma's writing: Satire swirls into savagery; a gimmicky premise into poignancy ... Every one of these eight stories ventures out of familiar situations into the weird ... All of the stories in Bliss Montage are haunting; none are didactic. Ling Ma writes with such authority that we readers are simply swept along, like that professor, through the portal. If sometimes we wonder where we've ended up, maybe that sense of dislocation is the desired final effect.
Most of these stories are uncanny and haunting ... The acts of looking and being seen come up repeatedly in these pages, as does the idea of concealment ... The genius of Ma’s stories is unearthed in how she stretches the boundaries of the world while zooming in on the details that matter most ... These stories use fantastical situations to address the isolation and absurdity of being confined by labels ... Bliss Montage is a powerful reminder that there is more than one way to see — and really know — a person.
The stories in Bliss Montage somehow manage to be even more strange and unsettling [than Severance] ... There’s a bit of magic realism in Ma’s imaginings, a bit of horror and often an emotional distancing, as if the characters, rather than experiencing their own lives, were watching alternate versions of themselves move through the world.
The stories of Bliss Montage keep the cover’s cheeky promise. They take place in little pockets removed from 'real' life, whatever that means: inside a parallel world hidden behind a wardrobe; at a cultish festival in a fictional country; on a protracted vacation in a 'de-Americanized' world; in an MFA workshop. The air has been sucked out of all these claustrophobic nowheres ... The pieces share a definite mood, and it’s lonely as hell ... Severance is a prototype for the best of Bliss Montage: surreal but rooted, watching at a remove while the world crumbles. Ghosts are the ultimate voyeurs — writers in their ectoplasmic state ... Ma rides a good concept when she finds one ... The later stories in Bliss Montage grow more fluid, as if the earliest ones are vocal warmups and the last are performances at Carnegie Hall. But the entire collection might as well have been written for Peking Duck and Office Hours, two powerhouses so absorbing that you’ll pray Ma spins them off into future novels.
A collection of eight oddball short stories that put a surreal twist on run-of-the-mill contemporary experiences ... In tone, the stories bear pleasant resemblance to Severance, with their wry humor and cultural savvy ... Ma has a knack for capturing the psychological realities of immigration and making vivid the feeling of belonging, but not quite, to two separate homes ... Ma has a sometimes exaggerated impulse to anticipate criticism and bake it into the prose itself ... Every story in Bliss Montage can reasonably be described as 'open-ended,' with characters' feelings left strikingly ambiguous, or their next move unclear. But Ma is not content to leave it there without first mounting a defense against the kind of dismissive attitude that would render her stories trite ... The winking asides in Bliss Montage are disappointing, but the collection is such a display of artisanship that it’s hard to write it off for a few lapses into trendiness.
Her plots move just a half-step away from reality, integrating fantastical elements so seamlessly that they almost escape notice ... Flat, spare language ... This subdued style is recognizable from Severance ... Ma diverges from the crowd is in harnessing this feeling of alienation to capture the elusive experience of being Asian American ... Ma’s characters share an emotional remove, as if they are watching their own lives from outside a window ... Ma drops references to Asian American identity only to move on without completing the thought ... These brief, isolated moments are mostly placed to the side of the primary action; some are given a nod so brief I wondered why they were included at all. Such microaggressions, unfortunately, don’t offer room for the characters to react beyond predictable ways, which ends up flattening them out further. Often, I wished Ma’s protagonists would emerge into the stories rather than retreat ... wanted to see them step fully into their bodies. Without that, what ends up being most notable in the fantasies of Bliss Montage is not the particular desires of Asian Americans, but their absence.
... on a deeper level, these stories are bound by a subconscious connective tissue. Characters and images reappear across stories, bridging time and space, reality and make-believe. Friends and lovers leap in and out of guises, revealing trap doors in their personalities, inexplicable quirks in their daily habits. Nothing stays constant except the desire to transform ... Ma writes as if the past can be re-scripted, people reborn, as easily as a story is spun on the page. And indeed her stylistic versatility makes it appear that way ... In all of these stories, Ma keenly captures the fantasies of young and not-so-young adults whose lives have plateaued, who feel estranged from their bodies, who think less about the person they married than about their joint assets. Never quite passionate in their love, secure in their finances, or successful in their careers, these characters find novel ways to rewrite their decisions ... To my mind, Ma reprises and retells the most important moments in Bliss Montage in order to depict the transformative effects of time. In the first instance of reflection, the true subject of the story is elided. The second iteration returns to the heart of the matter and tries to confront it. In a way, time passes in the white space between stories. Characters fall asleep and wake up. Like the husband who buries himself in order to change his life, Ma’s characters grow each time they reemerge.
... tactful lyricism ... To read them is to enter a world where strangeness is a language with a grammar all its own, and total immersion the only path to fluency. Ma’s use of unreality is a terrific refashioning of the Freudian uncanny — in this case, the idea of the estranged familiar — superimposed over tales of immigrants, ex-partners, and adult children ... These stories, from their thoughtfully charted plots to their clear, compact sentences, are written with the wisdom of a traveler — unlikely to come apart and paired down to the essentials, which Ma knows include not only practicality, but beauty and strangeness, as well.
... insightful, showing readers the darkness of our time but delivering it with an astute approach that often becomes surreal ... Ma gets right, both here and throughout her collection, the way that the absurd can highlight reality ... thoughtful, funny and haunting, similar to those moments during sleep that you aren't sure are a dream, a nightmare, or a warped reflection of the day ... The book also displays a smart awareness of structure. This beautifully written collection contains multiple metanarrative moments when an element of the story's construction is revealed ... The engaging stories in this collection are linked by theme but each piece also stands on its own. Bliss Montage was a joy to read even as it announced the problems of our reality — and, really, because of this discernment. The book is filled with echoes and illusions, yetis and drugs.
Ma channels her own peripatetic experiences: her birth in China, her Utah upbringing and her current Chicago home--each geography included, possibly transformed, in her fiction. Effortlessly moving between the quotidian and surreal, Ma explores identity molded through immigration, parental expectations, cultural colonialism and conflicted relationships for searing, poignant and occasionally (surprisingly) droll gratification.
I want to demand an explanation. I want to know why Ma’s characters are so far away, not just in this story, but in all of the stories in Bliss Montage ... Ma’s work differs from that of authors like Amy Tan or Sandra Cisneros, representatives of a preceding generation of immigrant writers: her work deals more with the expression of the group experience in the individual, as opposed to the way the individual’s experience reflects that of the group...This difference is subtle but important, freeing the individual from the burden of representation of the group and liberating her to have experiences, thoughts, ideas, ambitions, desires, and feelings that don’t fit neatly into a single, stereotypical narrative of what it means to be an immigrant, or even to hail from a particular country ... The eight stories in Bliss Montage are full of such characters, as well as characters whose immigrant status is not a subject of exploration, Ma having freed them, as well as herself, from the burden of representation. It’s a promising foundation on which to build a collection, and the short story format presents a chance at a deeper engagement with the themes already prevalent in Ma’s work. Unfortunately, though, the short story form doesn’t always quite work in Bliss Montage, and some pieces left me feeling like Ma had missed an opportunity at deepening her indagations in favor of a more surface-level survey of ideas ... This isn’t always necessarily a bad thing — moments of insight can indeed be just moments that remain incompletely explained ... Their moments of bright tenderness and lucid observations fall like single droplets into a placid lake: hyper-visible for a moment and then forgotten, quickly melding into an unmoving whole ... Ma lets opportunities for rapprochement between reader and author pass by in favor of pushing the reader away ... I found Ma’s cool distance compelling in its refusal of sentimentality but ultimately frustrating. I wanted to approach the story, to get closer so that I might understand more. I was repeatedly denied ... I would be more likely to accept this distance if it had a clarifying effect, like stepping back from the wall to observe a frame you’ve just hung. But in Bliss Montage, it produces opacity.
Written with straightforward uncanniness that only serves to confound fundamental issues of belonging (but where?), alienation (from whom?) and the ambivalence symptomatic to late-stage capitalism (ubiquitous), it’s not so much a topical departure from Ma’s debut novel as it is a formal one ... This boundary between fabulation and reality is even more thinly-pressed ... Bliss Montage is a series of curtailed snapshots, painting the contours of small lives in broad strokes. Reproductions of crystalline moments, just slightly out of focus. Like the zoomed-in oranges on the book’s cover, submerged under a glaze of plastic, Ma’s stories effortlessly gloss the absurd over the quotidian, holding perfect equilibrium between what is realistic and what’s so bluntly, obviously bizarre as to feel real ... I blasted through this book in a day and couldn’t stop; less a feverish dream state than akin to being buoyed along by a current of shallow, ambient fantasy. Ma’s prose is crisp and lucid, but her stories have a soft, relaxed posture, sifting through direct descriptive information, then perforated by phrases of intense imagistic clarity.
Among Ma’s recurrent themes are alienation and immigration ... The cover image of Bliss Montage, depicting oranges behind cellophane, suggests gratification just beyond reach ... Throughout the collection, Ma deftly captures the mood of what she has referred to as 'compromised pleasure' ... Not all of the stories in Bliss Montage are fully achieved; a few struggle to evolve past their premise ... But as an observer who immigrated as a child, Ma offers an astute insider-outsider perspective and a sharp eye for detail ... With an affinity for ambiguous endings, Ma does not always offer readers a resolution ... Ma’s fiction puts us in dystopian-yet-familiar situations that illuminate absurdities.
No one writes quite like Ling Ma, an author who combines the strange and quotidian in surprising, and surprisingly heart-rending, combinations ... just as compelling a mash-up, with stories that feel so personal and real, it’s tempting to read them as autofiction ... The stories in Bliss Montage are beautiful, heartbreaking, absurd and laugh-out-loud funny, all at once. If it feels like I’m rambling in my review, that just goes to show how much Ma’s writing speaks for itself – and refuses to let reviewers speak for it. This blistering collection is highly recommended for readers of Ottessa Moshfegh, Sayaka Murata and Samanta Schweblin.
Bliss Montage slips into the space that emerges when our grasp of practical reality eases and our sense for psychedelic possibilities expands. Rife with symbols of dreams and the unconscious ... Ma’s gifts in Bliss Montage lie not in her ability to tell the future but to contrast the irretrievability of the past with the instability of our recollection ... There is a disquieting and sometimes delightful sense of paranormal connection in these stories.
The premise of every story shimmers a bit oddly, an oil slick in a parking lot that distorts the picture, just a little bit, but beautifully. It is truly a Bliss Montage—a film term Ma credits to film historian Jeanine Basinger in the acknowledgments—a joy ride through many different worlds ... This feeling of a slippery understanding, an almost certain state, is like reading Bliss Montage. But is it just waking up, or is it a slow descent into a dream world? Ma’s stories refuse to chart any answer to this question, refuse to worry about anything but their contents, resisting narrative logic and future expectations. These stories seem to ask us to take a pause from thinking about both the future and the past, to settle down into the whirl of the montage, and maybe even enjoy it.
... reveals the absurdity of the everyday through push-the-envelope stories that feel weird and disturbing, perhaps self-consciously so, until the reader surrenders to their sensibility and decides that they’re brilliant ... Highly recommended for readers looking for an inventive take on contemporary life.
Brief and vivid joys set against a darker, more unsettling backdrop can be keenly felt throughout the book’s eight stories ... 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 ... A rich and capacious collection, a montage which begs to be viewed over and over again.
The book’s delicious assortment of surreal and conventional stories speak to the same themes that informed Severance: the otherness and alienation felt as a Chinese American and as a woman ... Narratives stop rather than come to an end. This isn’t a flaw but rather recognition that the biggest lie perpetuated by the 'bliss montage' is that life can be neatly edited together with all the messiness and loose threads removed.
There’s no guarantee that a writer who excels at short fiction will naturally succeed at novels, or vice versa, which is why it’s so exciting when a storyteller effortlessly crosses over. With her story collection, Bliss Montage, all the promise and power of Ling Ma’s 2018 novel, Severance, is gorgeously applied to the art of the short story. It’s a lyrical, potent anthology that blends fantasy and reality to dazzling effect ... The eight tales in Bliss Montage are rooted in familiar, deeply human moments...But within these familiar beats, Ma inserts fantastical conceits, tilting our view of reality, until something strange and new creeps in ... In each story, Ma seamlessly blends the real and the unreal with astonishing confidence and care. Laden with apt, surprising metaphors, her supernatural elements provide incisive, bittersweet commentary on human longing, loss and love. Her tightly structured sentences are little blades of wisdom and wit that slip into you when you least expect it, opening you up with bursts of raw, emotive power.
Sometimes with short story collections, there is a standout crowd pleaser, maybe one or two stories that you expect everyone will be talking about. But the prose is so strong, and these stories are all so different, so it’s tough to say which is the one that people will be talking about ... They reflect the real pains and anxieties of family, romantic, and work relationships.
[Ma] proves adept at various genres ... Fervently original and imaginative, Ma plays with this idea of marginal, emotional snapshots throughout the eight short stories in this collection ... To read Ma’s work is to step into her meticulously crafted worlds where fantasy and reality blur and bleed into one another. Ma grounds the fantastical in tangibility, often in the form of emotions, relationships, and relatable life events — a painful break-up, a toxic friend, immigrant parents, and a relationship between mother and daughter. Ma’s fiction finds mundanity in the absurd and the absurd in mundanity. Through a surrealistic lens, she reflects our nature, and we cannot look away. Like the bliss montage that this story collection is named after, Ma’s stories are ones I want to revisit again and again.
Ma again proves her biting sense of humor and gift for subtlety in a collection of eight short stories, all surreal and jarring in the most sensational way ... Ma masterfully takes on heavy topics such as abuse and loneliness with sprawling, spinning plotlines. All the while, she interweaves the experience of Chinese American women, touching on visibility, assimilation, and the expectations of immigrant mothers. A fantastical collection that grows more and more captivating with each page.
Fantastical and often brilliant ... [Some] stories...are enchanting, full of intelligence, dry humor, and an appealing self-awareness. On the other hand, a couple of entries...don’t quite manifest into something more than their conceit. Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy.