In Bliss Montage, a woman and her family live in the same house as her one hundred ex-boyfriends, women trapped in a toxic friendship take a drug that makes themselves invisible, and a pregnant woman must caretake the protruding arm of her fetus as she awaits giving birth to the rest of it.
The distance from everyday life that fantasy brings us can be used to magnify reality, and Ling Ma takes takes ample advantage of this in Bliss Montage, a short story collection that examines themes such as family, ownership of experiences, and above all alienation.
The writing combines an unnerving flat affect with startlingly beautiful turns of phrase, and the each story are dense enough in its own way that I was left with something to chew over long after I’d finished listening to it. My favorite stories were “Peking Duck,” which discusses if a daughter can claim ownership of her mother’s disturbing encounter with a door-to-door salesman, and “Returning,” where a couple return to an ancestral country to see a festival in which participants bury themselves alive to transform themselves.
However, sometimes the detachment of the narrators starts to become a bit much – they all seemed to be a little too similar to each other, anxious, alienated women with unsatisfying lives, as though we were seeing the same person in alternate universes. I felt that if there had been more variation in the main characters, the stories could have tapped a richer vein of themes to explore. Some of the stories were also too opaque and open-ended for my taste – “Yeti Lovemaking” in particular comes to mind.
I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by Katharine Chin. I thought she did an excellent job – her gentle tone captures the detached yet conflicted tone of the narrators, but also conveys the strongly ironic strain that permeates many of the stories. This is a case where the choice of narrator really elevates the experience of the book.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley. This is my honest and voluntary review.