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Ling Ma’s surreal stories explore the absurdity of labels

Ling Ma’s prescient 2018 debut novel, “Severance (no relation to the popular Apple TV Plus show), was set in a world where a virus turns people into zombies fated to repeat on a loop an action from their life. What differentiated it from most post-apocalyptic novels was how vividly Ma rendered the monotony and downfalls of the capitalistic workforce. Covid-19 didn’t turn anyone into zombies, but it did raise questions related to how we work and why.

Ma’s new short story collection, “Bliss Montage,” shares some of the themes she explored in her debut, including identity and the immigrant experience, but most of these stories are uncanny and haunting. In one, “Los Angeles,” a woman lives with her 100 ex-boyfriends, including a man who abused her; in another, “G,” a pill makes people invisible, allowing them to experience life without the constraints of a body. “Do you know how easily the world yields to you when you move through it in an invisibility cocoon?” Ma writes. “No one looks at you, no one assesses you. It lifts the tiny anvil of self-consciousness. You can go anywhere, unimpeded by the microaggressions of strangers, the obligatory, waterlogged civilities of friends and acquaintances.” But disembodiment can also be confusing for those whose identities are shaped by the views of others. That’s the case for Beatrice, whose self-image is wrapped up in the feedback of her friend Bonnie. “It doesn’t take much to come into your own; all it takes is someone’s gaze,” Beatrice thinks. “It’s not totally accurate to say that I felt seen. It was more that: Beheld by her, I learned how to become myself. Her interest actualized me.”

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The acts of looking and being seen come up repeatedly in these pages, as does the idea of concealment. In “Office Hours,” a film and media studies professor named Marie learns that, in her office closet, there’s a portal to another reality she refers to as the chamber, a place she escapes to for cigarette breaks. When she attempts to bring flowers back from this other space, they disintegrate, emphasizing the idea that we can’t inhabit multiple realities at the same time. “The sanest way forward — you have to learn how to split yourself up into other selves, like an earthworm,” her mentor advised her years earlier, when she was about to graduate. And perhaps that’s what Marie is doing when she gives a lecture on “the space of fantasy” in “Stalker” and “The Wizard of Oz,” or engages with an obnoxious and condescending male colleague: moving closer toward a multiplicity of the self, allowing for possibility instead of stagnancy. In the acknowledgments, Ma says that the title of this collection comes from the film historian Jeanine Basinger. In “A Woman’s View, Basinger writes: “And there is one unique convention that almost never appears anywhere except in a woman’s film, the Happy Interlude. This sequence, which might also be called the Bliss Montage, is familiar to anyone who watches old movies … Her Happy Interlude is a woman’s small piece of action, her marginal territory of joy.”

Montages are a way of condensing and collapsing time to emphasize pivotal moments. Yet they can also be a forced fantasy, taking the viewer further from the truth. The genius of Ma’s stories is unearthed in how she stretches the boundaries of the world while zooming in on the details that matter most. “Something he had once said in a lecture: ‘It is in the most surreal situations that a person feels the most present, the closest to reality,’ ” Ma writes in “Office Hours.” This is a perfect encapsulation of Ma’s approach to storytelling. Whether she’s writing about a pregnant woman walking around with her baby’s arm growing outside of the womb, extended between her legs (“Tomorrow”) or a woman who finds herself adrift in her husband’s home country during a festival that involves burying people alive for the night (“Returning”), these stories use fantastical situations to address the isolation and absurdity of being confined by labels.

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The main character in “Peking Duck” is a writer who immortalizes some memories of her immigrant mother’s lived experiences in her fiction but assures her mom that the characters aren’t her. “There are so many mothers in your stories, what am I supposed to think?” the mother asks. “But they’re all so miserable. Does there have to be so much suffering?” In looking at her mother through the veil of fiction the daughter rewrites her mother’s narrative, raising the question of who is really in control of a story. “Bliss Montage” is a powerful reminder that there is more than one way to see — and really know — a person.

Michele Filgate is a writer and the editor of the essay collection “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.”

Bliss Montage

Stories

By Ling Ma

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 240 pp. $26

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