Inside the Dreams of Ling Ma

Inside the Dreams of Ling Ma

The stories in her collection Bliss Montage tackle the troubles of the real world by transporting us to the realm between sleep and waking life.

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I don’t know if Ling Ma is an insomniac, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she is. For the sleepless, the veil between consciousness and the realm of dreams is worn thin; waking life is rendered fuzzy, but if you squint, it might glow. Ma’s new story collection, Bliss Montage, slips into the space that emerges when our grasp of practical reality eases and our sense for psychedelic possibilities expands. Rife with symbols of dreams and the unconscious, Bliss Montage explores abuse, immigration, and passive societal decline through prose as cool and fine as hotel linens. By draping her stories in the language and atmosphere of the surreal, Ma challenges us to try our hand at the lost art of interpretation—the humble recognition that our perception of any moment, traumatic or mundane, is at best a good guess.

Bliss Montage follows on the success of Ma’s uncanny 2018 debut Severance, about a virus originating in China that takes out most of the world’s population, leaving survivors stuck in loops of nostalgic behavior. But while post-2020 readers declared her prescient, Ma’s gifts in Bliss Montage lie not in her ability to tell the future but to contrast the irretrievability of the past with the instability of our recollection. These are stories preoccupied with sudden, yet ordinary, schisms—death, violence, birth, infidelity, migration, publication, the ends of love—as well as the worlds we emerge into in their aftermath, and the unexpected outcomes of our longing to return.

The feeling of entering and exiting a dream recurs in each of Bliss Montage’s stories. In “Office Hours,” a student enjoys naps—not a euphemism—on her professor’s sofa, while he works at his desk. In “Returning,” a woman wakes after an overseas flight to discover that her husband has already deboarded and left the airport, taking with him her passport and luggage. In “Tomorrow,” a woman dozes off, again at an airport, awaiting her flight home. In more than one story, characters dream the most banal of dreams: dreams of their exes. To get a former boyfriend to stop calling her, a character lies that she has a new partner, pulling his name from thin air: Mark Radisson. “Radisson like the hotel chain,” Ma writes. “Fluffy pillows and clean sheets. A convalescent state, a business conference in a midsized city.” Dream logic prevails as a film professor immortalizes himself in a Magritte-like landscape, through a trapdoor; a street drug brings on temporary invisibility; a wealthy woman’s mansion is filled with a hundred ex-boyfriends; a pregnant woman’s fetus slips its developing arm out of her vagina; a ceremony in a foreign land involves burying oneself alive for one night. Discontented with the familiar grooves of the immigrant narrative or the survivor narrative or even the successful-American-writer-with-certain-expectations-placed-upon-her narrative, Ma finds her way out of stereotypes by way of the surreal, the nightmarish, and the psychological. Through Bliss Montage’s dream logic, Ma destabilizes easy expectations—around speculative literature, Asian American literature, immigrant literature, trauma literature, and fiction itself—to gratifying effect.

There is a disquieting and sometimes delightful sense of paranormal connection in these stories: Echoes, recurrences, and bizarre coincidences animate the drama of this collection. The title of a character’s debut novel gets placed in another story’s passing dialogue; doorbells and telephones chime throughout; the motif of citrus wafts through from the collection’s cover to its finish—an orange rolling on the floor, a lemon squeezed into a vegetable soup. The sense of these stories as somehow, perhaps subliminally, connected is also encouraged by Ma’s selection of “Los Angeles” and “Oranges” as the collection openers. Both feature an abusive ex-boyfriend named Adam—a suggestive choice of name, as though he is the book’s Original Man.

“Los Angeles” begins with a woman of leisure who lives in an enormous mansion, along with her husband, her children, their au pairs, and her 100 ex-boyfriends, with whom she spends her days. In another writer’s hands, the concept could be an overly labored metaphor—our past loves never leave us, etc., etc.—but with Ma’s chilled touch, surreal premises are rarely a gimmick. They’re more of a diversion, a way of getting the reader to indulge in a bit of playfulness, to let their guard down. As Ma paints notes of Californian dread throughout—”bougainvillea the color of bruises,” or LA’s architectural thoughtlessness confirming, like a postmodern psychoanalyst, that “there is no pattern, there is no meaning”—the reality of her narrator’s attachment to her exes comes to a head. Ninety-eight boyfriends will, eventually, leave, but two remain: her first love, Aaron, and the one who abused her, Adam. Why do we hold on to any of the people we’ve loved and left behind? “To live is to exist within time. To remember is to negate time,” Ma’s narrator recites. It’s a notion Bliss Montage returns to again and again: that memory is a kind of magical act in itself, a chopping and resplicing of time’s rigid passing.

“Oranges” is one of the less surreal stories in the collection, but it maintains the same focus on the unconscious: Our narrator spots her abusive ex-boyfriend, again named Adam, and follows him down the street. She watches him cook pasta with a young woman in a warmly lit, eccentrically decorated apartment across the street, while reflecting on her past with Adam: his violence and cruelty, his weak character, and another ex-girlfriend’s attempts to bond with the narrator over their shared experience of abuse. (The narrator turns down an invitation to gather with all of Adam’s exes, at a “mixer” for survivors of the same abusive man. The concept acts as a kind of reveal for “Los Angeles”’s conceit.)

While the narrator of “Oranges” seems determined to leave behind the abuse of her past, she longs to understand why it happened too. There is no resolution in her interactions with Adam; for years she continues to search for him online, reading news of his various arrests. Yet of a recurring dream, she reflects, “Whenever this dream visited me, in the moment before waking, I would have this burst of clarity. I would realize why he was cruel to those close to him. I would understand why he hit me.” These are the common stakes of dreaming: the possibility that out of fragmentation and distortion, once in a blue moon we will be gifted, even momentarily, with revelation. The narrator’s dream is unextraordinary, just a replaying of a memory: Adam refusing to ask for another orange at a cafeteria after his rolled off his tray, exemplifying his pathological passiveness. The link to Adam’s violence is not made explicit; the narrator’s epiphany is visceral but unexplained; the reader left to play analyst. In this and throughout Bliss Montage, Ma suggests that to plainly state a connection might cause it to vanish, the way the affective power and plot of our dreams tend to dissipate like smoke when we speak them out loud.

In concept and in individual lived experience, migration is a master class in the sublimated past’s power to warp our present, to guide our hand, to surprise us. In a 2019 interview with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Ma said, “My feelings about the immigrant narrative are something I’m still processing. It’s a personal hangup.” Reflecting on Severance, Ma continued, “​​You could argue that the immigrant narrative and the apocalyptic narrative are similar in that they’re both traditionally organized around a Before and an After.” The question of befores and afters, presents and pasts, preoccupies Bliss Montage. And, famously, immigrant narratives are often organized around the concept of a dream.

Dreams get a person from one place to another: They animate our sense of possibility; they hold our wishes for the future; they distract from suffering; they delay, sometimes forever, the question of whether the price was worth it. The cornerstone story of Bliss Montage, “Peking Duck,” abandons a fantastical conceit for one grounded in multiple perspectives. In it, a successful writer reflects on the ways in which fiction—storytelling, lying—comes naturally to her in her second language of English:

English is just a play language to me, the words tethered to their meanings by the loosest, most tenuous connections. So it’s easy to lie. I tell the truth in Chinese, I make up stories in English. I don’t take it that seriously. When I’m finally enrolled in first grade, I tell classmates that I live in a house with an elevator, with deer in the backyard. It is the language in which I have nothing to lose, even if they don’t believe a thing I say.

The split self echoes ideas voiced in several other Bliss Montage stories: One narrator’s boyfriend describes fiction as a “fantasy space for our other selves”; a professor counsels that the “sanest way forward” is to “learn how to split yourself up into other selves, like an earthworm.” If time cuts us off from past worlds and past selves, for many of Ma’s characters, fiction is a way back taking control.

In “Peking Duck,” the narrator’s mother is a nanny for a wealthy Utah family; like many immigrants, she and her husband have emigrated in advance of their children, who are sent to join them after living with their grandparents in Fujian. As the narrator adapts to life in Utah, her mother further encourages her ease with fabulation, in a manner that reflects the frustrations of assimilation: “She would phrase her questions like ‘You’re popular at school, right?’ or ‘You have a lot of friends, right?,’ priming me to answer the way she wanted. She couldn’t not have known that I was lying, but wanted to bathe in the lies. She needed to believe I was thriving in the US, that my happiness came at the cost of hers, rather than acknowledge the fact that we were both miserable in this country together.” In a land of delusions, fictionalization is a survival technique.

“Peking Duck” draws its title from a story in Mark Salzman’s memoir Iron and Silk. In the story, Salzman teaches an English class in China, and one of his Chinese students reads an essay he has written, about an extraordinary banquet he once attended, culminating in a delicious Peking duck. After reading his essay aloud in class, the student reveals to Salzman that he was not actually at the banquet himself: It was all his wife’s memory. “My wife went to Beijing and had this duck. But she often tells me about it again and again, and I think, even though I was not there, it is my happiest memory.” Ma’s narrator in “Peking Duck” encounters this story in her local library’s copy of Iron and Silk as a child, having recently immigrated to Utah from China; the narrator, like the Chinese man recounting his wife’s story in Salzman’s retelling, has herself never had Peking duck. Years later, in a writing workshop, the narrator encounters the story again, in a piece of short fiction by Lydia Davis. The actual lived encounter with Peking duck—the true happiest memory—belongs to a woman far offstage, never named. To what extent does it remain hers?

Later, another Asian student in the narrator’s workshop finds the narrator’s workshop story (a retelling of an experience in her mother’s early days in the US) to be reliant on crude stereotypes, “a tired Asian American subject, these stories about immigrant hardships and, like, intergenerational woes…a kind of Asian minstrelsy.”

In the final section of “Peking Duck,” we read a narrative that appears to be told in the narrator’s mother’s first-person voice; whether it is her voice or the narrator’s workshop story is not clear. While working as a nanny, the mother is forced to entertain a sleazy, racist salesman who forces his way into her employers’ home while they are out. In the tense scenes that follow, the mother—at least in “her” telling—is extended no empathy: not by the salesman, not by the family that employs her, and not by her daughter, who blames her after she walks out on the nannying job. It is a shattering story, and we are left to wonder whether it is the narrator’s work of fiction or the direct voice of the narrator’s mother. All of this is nested within our knowledge that this is a story by Ling Ma, a writer whose personal history (Ma was born in Fujian before emigrating to Utah) aligns with that of the story’s narrator, presenting the possibility of slippage between fact and biography, or the closest we get to an artist’s statement.

The questions of legibility posed by “Peking Duck” are echoed by the narrator of “Returning,” an immigrant writer married to an immigrant writer from another country. In an effort to wear her role as a wife, she makes “salad dressing from scratch, even though we were both immigrants from places that considered eating raw vegetables primitive.” While the narrator finds her husband’s insistence on marriage and tradition off-putting, she understands his motivation:

He said he believed in traditions, that they have been set in place to guide every generation. He wanted what his parents and grandparents had. He wanted what came before. And that he liked the idea of having heirlooms, material things that would outlast us, that could signify lineage. We had both come from immigrant families. Our parents had taken a great risk and now it was up to us to earn out that risk, build upon what they had established.

The narrator has an affair, which her husband learns about from her journal; in the end, he is willing to abandon everything, including her, in a futile effort to return to “what came before.” He literally buries himself in his native soil, as part of a traditional ritual that will either heal him or kill him. What he seeks to be healed of is unstated: We suspect, at the story’s end, that he is looking to be healed of his love for her.

Ma’s surrealism hinges on these unmoored images, which taken together across Bliss Montage’s stories read like entries in a dream dictionary with incomplete definitions attached. It is as though Ma’s fixation is sublimation itself: the notion that something else lies beneath the surface of what one consciously desires, believes, or pursues. Whether that sublimated something is the truer need or just a pointless fossil of personal history, Ma leaves for us to decide.

And there is, of course, a cultural element to how we treat the unconscious. In “Peking Duck,” as the narrator dines with her mother in a Chinese restaurant, she asks her about that fraught scene from her past, now fictionalized in the daughter’s debut book. The mother replies, “Look, we’re not like Americans. We don’t need to talk about everything that gives us a negative feeling. I wouldn’t move forward if I just kept thinking about it.” The daughter replies by quoting her therapist, who says that it’s always better to acknowledge reality. Her mother “flinches at my mention of therapy, which, predictably, ends the conversation.” The story, and Bliss Montage at large, force the question: Who is “acknowledging reality,” and which reality? And who decides—the one who lives the story, or the one who writes it?

The final story of Bliss Montage, “Tomorrow,” is noticeably set in the future. (The close third-person narrator recalls a cousin who “now lived in what was formerly England,” and we are placed in a “different, if not inevitable, time.”) Eve—a conspicuously biblical echo at this collection’s conclusion, harking back to Adam at the start—is pregnant with her ex’s baby, whose fetal arm dangles out from her vagina in a rare but not-unheard-of medical occurrence in this near-future. The ex is a recognizably WASPish D.C. type, who expresses tenderness toward the narrator only when he thinks she is asleep. “The problem was that to access the warmest, most human part of him,” Ma writes, “she would always have to be partly unconscious.” Still, post-breakup, she “looked for him in dreams.”

The turbulence of pregnancy—the carrying of possibility and future existence within oneself—is heightened as much by Eve’s instinct to return to her home country as by the dangling fetal arm. “Coming here, for them, had been the grand ambition, the only dream. But now their only child had the thought of returning, of a homecoming.” Yet when she reaches the unnamed country from which she emigrated, it is the uncanny destination this collection has been priming us for: a dystopian (and quite funny) melange of Western influence in an unnamed Eastern locale: “The marble-tiled lobby consisted of a mishmash of European architectural styles—crown moldings in the shape of ivy leaves, a Tudor-shaped chandelier, a set of trompe l’oeil paintings of Venetian windows. A mechanical baby grand played ‘Tiny Dancer’ next to a koi pond.”

The country’s government has begun an initiative to “reverse undue Western influence” by banning American business and cultural iconography, but “America as a subliminal presence remained everywhere, if not more strongly than before. An ideology defined only by what it opposes is doomed to be defined by that exact thing.”

Eve, initially welcomed by her distant family, is shunned after they see the baby arm dangling, which disturbs them. Having comforted herself with the notion of a homecoming, Eve grows indignant in the face of her humiliation and protective of her unborn son:

None of this mattered because she would return to the US, where she would give birth to her baby, the first in the family to be born an American citizen. He would be free from his lineage of demanding ancestors, free from their restrictive traditions and expectations. She could withstand the brutality of this moment for the lucidity it brought her: she would never return.

The old, tired promise of the American dream is cast anew in the glare of her anger. When reality offers no reprieve, any dream will do.

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