Inside Ling Ma’s darkly funny fictionJack Helbigon January 13, 2023 at 1:00 pm

I don’t usually get ensnared by a book. But Ling Ma’s short story collection, Bliss Montage, was different. I started reading it Thanksgiving morning and literally could not stop. There was something urgent in Ma’s writing, something that demanded full attention. It might be her distinctive voice—wry, witty, relatable. Or her sentences—carefully crafted, but not too carefully. Or the fact that there is always something savage and dark behind her polished prose.

Ling Ma’s stories are about people who don’t fit in, who don’t feel at home, even in their own skin. They don’t know who they are or what they want. And when they dare to do something decisive, things inevitably go wrong. 

In one story, “Oranges,” the narrator, the survivor of an abusive relationship, becomes obsessed with trying to warn her ex’s current girlfriend about him. No surprise, things do not go well. In Ma’s world, no good deed goes unpunished. 

In a Kirkus interview, the author said she often works in the horror genre. As in the horror of Gregor Samsa, waking to find himself transformed into a gigantic beetle. In Ma’s story, “Tomorrow,” a pregnant woman finds that she must live with her unborn child’s forearm protruding penis-like from her vagina. Very Kafkaesque, this weird mix of horror and humor. Ma calls Kafka her ”bread and butter.”

Bliss Montage by Ling MaFarrar, Straus, and Giroux, hardcover, 240 pp., $26,

Similarly, in “Yeti Lovemaking,” the narrator recounts a fling with an abominable snowman, an experience that sounds increasingly horrific the more she reveals about it. She writes, “Making love to a Yeti is difficult and painful at first but easy once you’ve done it more than thirty times. . . . the skin toughens, capillaries become less prone to breakage. Contusions heal by morning—you don’t even see them. Certain fluids stop secreting altogether.” Horrifying. And funny.

“For the very dark topics, you have to be funny,” Ma tells me.

After reading Bliss Montage (which is a finalist for the Story Prize) twice, I had to read Severance. Severance put Ma on the map, winning her the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Fiction, and earning her a place on lots of best books lists. It is a fascinating, odd, hybrid novel; part comic office fiction, part post-apocalyptic portrait of America. Imagine the world-weary comedy of Parks and Recreation with scenes reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s Afrofuturist dystopias. In a Paris Review interview, Ma says she watched a lot of The Walking Dead while writing it, and also read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle, and Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters.

The tone of Severance is similar to Bliss Montage. And so are the issues the characters face. In Severance, the hero, a disaffected New Yorker named Candace Chen, first drifts through life in Manhattan, working at a publishing job she kind of hates, and then, after the country is paralyzed by a brain-destroying pandemic that zombifies its victims, joins a group of drifters tripping across the country looking for . . . what? They’re not sure. 

Ma was born in Sanming, Fujian, China; her parents took her to America when she was six. She grew up in Utah, Kansas, and Nebraska, attended the University of Chicago and Cornell, worked at various jobs in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area, and seems to have never felt entirely at home anywhere. China is not home either. “I’m not very fluent in Mandarin,” she tells me, “I can speak conversational Chinese.”

Ma spent her childhood reading. “My parents were both so busy and doing other things. I mostly had to entertain myself. Going to the library was really the highlight of my week.”

Author Ling MaCredit: Anjali Pinto Credit: Anjali Pinto

Ma also loved movies. Her stories abound in references to them: Torn Curtain, L’avventura, Ghost World. One story in Bliss Montage is about a woman who becomes a professor of cinema studies. The very title of the book is a term in film studies; coined by film scholar Jeanine Basinger, bliss montage refers to movie sequences where a series of pleasurable moments (a date, a birthday party, a trip) are edited together, usually with sound behind it.

“I worked at the library,” she explains. “I would just get loads of movies and watch them through the weekend. I got a hold of Ingmar Bergman. I watched a bunch of Hitchcock as a teenager. I’m a big fan of Hitchcock films. I really admire the way that he sets up many of his storytelling elements.”

“A lot of my cultural consumption as a kid and as a teen was about assimilation,” Ma admits, “trying to understand this culture that I had ended up in but had not personally chosen for myself. But I think I was also trying to demonstrate some kind of mastery of [American] culture.” This may explain why she packs her work with so many pop culture references (Liz Phair, Margaret Cho, red Solo cups, Judith Butler).

“[I was] trying to learn how to pass as American, trying to figure out how, not through what I was wearing, but through, I guess, my mental state, my frame of mind.” Ma pauses, not finishing the thought, then says, “Like, what is the American frame of mind?”

In a 2019 interview in the Chicago Tribune, she admitted she felt pressured, while an MFA candidate, to write a “traditional immigration novel.” This issue comes up in her story, “Peking Duck,” where a woman is criticized in a writing class for perpetuating Asian stereotypes. “I think that’s a particularly painful moment,” Ma sighs. “Perhaps the story does shepherd in some stereotypes, unconsciously or otherwise. But that’s, I think, just the burden of representation. One story, one narrative has to represent all this entire group of people. And that’s what a lot of non-white writers have to go through, or be subjected to, that burden of representation. I think it’s also why, with Severance, I resisted writing a traditional immigrant narrative. I didn’t want my first book to be an immigrant narrative.”

Still, the issue of identity is central to Ma’s work.

After high school, Ma went to the University of Chicago with the idea of perhaps becoming an archaeologist. “Dig things up, put things together, was my idea of an interesting way of spending my time.” That didn’t work out, and Ma tried anthropology and then economics. “I think I just ended up majoring in English because the Chicago winters are very long.” Ma quips, “You get depressed and all you can do is stay in the apartment and read Henry James.”

After college she worked at various publishing jobs. For a while she lived in Berkeley, California, and wrote for the East Bay Express. She attended a summer journalism fellowship at Northwestern’s Medill School, and wrote for the Chicago Reader. But Ma’s foray into journalism was short-lived. She lacked, in her words, “a journalist’s killer instinct.”

Instead, Ma found her home in fiction.  

“I think fiction is the space where you can explore things you would never do yourself in your own life,” she says. “[Fiction] is not about replicating reality. It’s actually about expanding experience. That’s really what you want to do, to go beyond experience.”

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