Sad to say this was a total flop for me.
I read Ling Ma’s Severance a couple of years ago and while, admittedly, it was not my favourite book ever, I still remember thinking that it had a lot of potential, and that it boded well for Ma’s future releases. For that reason, I went into Bliss Montage cautiously optimistic, hoping that maybe what didn’t work for me in a novel would work better in a short story collection. Needless to say, my hopes did not pan out.
I’m tempted to say I had two “issues” with Bliss Montage–one with its narrative voice, and one with its storytelling–but really these are less “issues” and more fundamental problems with the collection’s writing as a whole. First, Ma’s stories are all almost tonally identical; there is so little variety in their narrative voices. It feels like every story more or less has the same melancholic, impassive narrator: lost women who are Going Through It to various degrees but whose dry, flat narration makes you feel like they’re all responding to their particular issues in the same way. On principle, I don’t mind more distant or inscrutable narrators, but when every single story feels like it’s a slight variation on one kind of narrator, then the collection starts to feel very one-note, and the stories start to blur together. This type of narrator might work in a novel with one POV because you have no other narrator to compare them to, but when I read a short story collection, I’m evaluating it on different terms than I would a novel: every story needs to distinguish itself, to stand on its own two feet. Narrative voice is one very noticeable way to do this–it’s great when it’s done well, but when it’s not, as was the case here, it becomes very obvious very quickly.
So much for tone; where I run into issues next is in the actual storytelling: I found the stories of Bliss Montage to be opaque and just really unsatisfying. I’ve liked collections with more elusive short stories before (Meng Jin’s Self-Portait with Ghost is one recent example that comes to mind); when done well, I think their opacity makes you gravitate towards them all the more, motivated in your attempts to try to see them more clearly. Bliss Montage‘s stories, though, shut me out rather than drew me in. I just couldn’t for the life of me figure out what these stories were trying to say. I would start a story, and it would feel like it was going somewhere interesting, and then it would just end. The parts were somewhere in there, but the execution of the whole pretty much always fell flat for me.
Thematically, I’m not sure what this collection was going for. The synopsis says these stories are “eight wildly different tales,” and I’m inclined to agree with that, though not really in a positive sense. I don’t need every short story collection I read to be thematically cohesive–in a way, one of the attractions of short story collections is precisely the fact that they don’t need to be thematically cohesive as a novel would; they give you the latitude to dip in and out of very different narratives without the investment that a longer piece of writing would ask from you. But even with all this in mind, the stories of Bliss Montage felt so disparate to me–a fact that was made even worse by the tonal similarity issue. So the stories all read like they’re coming from the same narrator–or same kind of narrator–but the narratives themselves all feel so random. It was like I was reading random stories that were all being filtered through the same subjectivity, so even though the stories themselves were very different, they still ended up feeling very similar. Everything stood out, but also nothing stood out. It was a real lose-lose situation.
One last thing: I was so frustrated by how these stories’ endings almost always left me hanging. Again, I don’t categorically dislike vague or open-ended stories, but when every story ends right in the middle of things, it starts getting very annoying. It felt like these stories ratcheted up the tension, and then just went nowhere with it–the narrative equivalent of going up a rollercoaster without any of the emotional release of the actual going down part.
I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this collection, but I’m also not discounting it as a whole because there were some glimmers here and there of things that I liked, or at least found interesting. The writing, for one, is occasionally sharp and perceptive, and I did end up highlighting a few passages that I thought were well written or insightful. There were also two stories that I think had some compelling themes, specifically “G” (about how women relate to their bodies, especially as those relationships tie into family, friendships, and culture) and “Pecking Duck” (about mother-daughter relationships and how they’re [mis]translated in fiction). That’s about all I have to say in terms of positives, though.
Anyway, I was really looking forward to this. It sounded so cool, and then I read the first story and was like “ok this is weird, but let’s see where the collection is going,” and then…it never went anywhere.
Thanks so much to FSG for providing me with an eARC of this via NetGalley!