Bliss Montage by Ling Ma

I prefer realism in literary fiction “because it isn’t real”. Even realism is a synthetic construct: It depends on a complex of conventions that can’t in themselves be justified as realistic. There are different realisms. As many, at least, as the authors who write the books. How can realism itself be real if there are multiple versions of it? Which is the real realism? Sounds like fantasy.

I call fantasy a species of middlebrow literature, maybe with dragons, who I don’t seem to like. If it’s elite literature, I’d call it surrealism. The great chain of being, a medieval concept that there are gradations of being, has been superseded by modernism. But if there is just being, how can we persist in arranging anything, like literature, into hierarchies? I’m puzzled by these issues, but perhaps not confused.

Bliss Montage by Ling Ma is beautiful literature. What makes it beautiful, more than anything else, is its ingenious modeling of reality. If its reality includes surrealism, then reality implodes, which is a good thing if it is getting in the way. Of what? Perhaps of taking responsibility into one’s own hands…which we like to avoid.

I’m reviewing by association: recalling those stories that impacted me the most. I love Los Angeles stories, which the first story is named after. When the narrator says she lives in her house with her husband and 100 ex-boyfriends, I believed her. In my suggestibility, I guess I’m a perfect reader. What struck me most was the character’s retrospection. There’s a scene where she sees or imagines a modest apartment occupied apparently by a younger version of herself. And living with 100 ex-boyfriends can also be viewed as an attempt at retrospection…which is always going to be a failure because you can never be the same person again. You can’t possibly guess how she works out her life with a husband and 100 ex-boyfriends, but you’re going to want to find out. Ling Ma’s characters can tend to be retrospective. But if you’re retrospective at 35, when your “history” consists of who you knew in college, then I wondered how retrospective these characters would be when they were 75 and had much more history to look back on.

In “G”, a story about meeting with a former college roommate, Bonnie, the narrator even lays in the same bed she had when she roomed with her perhaps former friend. There’s a scene where they get high and, visiting a Sephora, spray the air with various perfume tester bottles…all with specified brand names. If reality could be assembled out of an ensemble of brand names, then Ling Ma could achieve it. It reminded me of the modest violation in Breakfast at Tiffany’s where Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard steal costume masks from a store and rush out, wearing them on the street. If the Sephora incident counts as rebellion, it’s a pretty tepid one. Perhaps that’s the point. But the sharp observation that Bonnie expects to be treated like the two women are still roommates, despite the passage of many years and the obvious clues that her friend wants more distance (or does she really?) alone makes the story worth reading.

About “Yeti Lovemaking” I’d offer the observation that it’s, as only Ling Ma can imagine, a challenge. “Returning” was my favorite story in a collection of favorites. A wife awakes in a plane to discover that her husband has already deplaned with their luggage. We have arrived at Garboza, her husband’s homeland, and by skilled modulations in the narrative, we identify with the narrator’s rising anxiety as she realizes that her husband has taken her passport and disappeared into the hinterland, which the oddly named country of Garboza apparently has a great deal of. There’s a wonderfully Russian doll-like structure in which we hear about the narrator’s marriage, during which we have a further flashback to the plot of the novel she has written, about a wife who abandons her husband to cryogenic freezing, which is framed by the writer’s oddly Platonic relationship with a loner whose house she stays in for a day and a  night.

Would you call that complicated? I’d call it a JOY. I dare you Ling Ma, make it even more complicated…and she does! There’s a resurrection ceremony on Garboza where you’re buried alive overnight and dug up in the morning. Most people survive the ceremony, but not everyone.

Whatever Ling Ma can imagine, she can make real. Rooms full of language rise up, containing beautiful furniture and complicated, intriguing people. Ling Ma works hard on the details, and on the people, and she confers that rare sense of artistic rightness that makes for distinguished storytelling.