Fantasy has always been been the province of the bored housewife. Over the monotonous passing of hours and days, she crafts escapist visions that wise readers know will never be realized. The dreaming, of course, is the point. In a life devoid of meaningful agency, these momentary detachments from reality offer a necessary pleasure. The question posed by Ling Ma’s speculative story collection, Bliss Montageis: How long can fantasy really sustain you?
The collection opens with a housewife’s reverie. A woman lives in a multi-winged Los Angeles mansion with her Mr. Moneybags husband and their two children. Her 100 ex-boyfriends reside there, too, to keep her company during the day. On the husband’s dime, they while away the hours indulging in the city’s bougie diversions: Barney’s, LACMA, Moon Juice. The husband, a match of convenience found on LoweredExpectations.com, is a blank outline who speaks only in dollar signs, but two of the woman’s ex-boyfriends still remind her of real emotion. The charming idiosyncrasies of one, a young love, once made her laugh; the physical abuse of the other has left a lasting mark, deep as a bone bruise.
The story’s obvious satire of LA’s moneyed class is the closest Ma gets to exaggerating for effect. (Well, almost—another story details interspecies sex with a yeti.) Elsewhere in the collection, her plots move just a half-step away from reality, integrating fantastical elements so seamlessly that they almost escape notice. Nothing about her flat, spare language signals that a drug that makes the user invisible, or a pregnancy condition in which a tiny, grasping fetal arm drops out of the mother’s vagina, is a shift away from the known universe.
This subdued style is recognizable from Severance, Ma’s 2018 bestselling debut novel about a viral pandemic called Shen Fever that traps those it infects in nostalgic routines. Two years after its publication, the book was hailed as prescient for its canny descriptions of a global disease originating in China and subsequent political chaos. (A travel ban against Asians is one such clairvoyant detail.) But Severance wasn’t future-looking, so much as it was a rebooted zombie-flick capitalist critique for American millennials 10 years out from Occupy, a generation whose labor and identities were being conscripted to destructive global corporations while they suffered from a paralyzed awareness of their own, sometimes willing, entrapment. At the end of the novel, its protagonist, Candace, is alone in a deserted Chicago, divested of the templates for living that her parents, her boyfriend, and her employer once provided for her. She faces the overwhelming—or exhilarating, depending on how you read it—prospect of building a life shaped entirely by her own desires.
Severance followed a trend in recent fiction of female characters who move through cleanly depicted consumerist landscapes with emotional dampers on, either too jaded, too exhausted, or too bored by modern life to bother with actual feeling. Where Ma diverges from the crowd is in harnessing this feeling of alienation to capture the elusive experience of being Asian American. The protagonists of Bliss Montage are middle-class Chinese-American women who assimilate easily into white society. (Not all of the characters are explicitly identified as Chinese, but they have analogous backgrounds.) For them, the effects of racism and of racial difference are less material than psychological. They are not in positions of want, but they have less than their friends and romantic partners. Their lives, while decent, have been planned by their parents and husbands, and as a result they feel unfulfilled. But what their desires are, exactly, they can’t say.
Ma’s characters share an emotional detachment, as if they are watching their own lives from outside a window. The feeling might be familiar to children of immigrants. In “Office Hours,” a film professor reflects that her parents, restaurant owners who took a second mortgage on their home to send her to college, had named her after the adventurous governess from The Sound of Music—yet her quiet life has kept her close to home. “Her default position was that of a dog fighting out of a corner,” Ma writes. Although she has accomplished her career ambitions, it is with a sense of loss, because they’ve never been fully her own.
“Tomorrow,” a story with a sly, absurdist cast, takes place in a near-future America that has been severely downgraded in the international rankings. Eve, a US government employee, returns to her family’s country of origin in hopes of freeing herself from a misguided allegiance to America, a country that was chosen by her parents. “She could no longer conceive of a life beyond the one they had envisioned for her,” Ma writes. “Coming here, for them, had been the grand ambition, the only dream.” Her effort to adopt a new home, though, falls through; she feels no more belonging there than here.
In other stories, Ma drops references to Asian American identity only to move on without completing the thought. A woman’s ex-boyfriend confides that his mother makes racist comments about Asians; a woman wonders if a former classmate is confusing her for another Asian student. 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. So many of them feel like they’re on G, the invisibility drug, the outline of each character bleeding indistinctly into the next. I wanted to see these women laugh, sweat, cry, scream. I 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.