In her highly anticipated new book, Ling Ma, who teaches writing at the University of Chicago, has penned eight hilarious and haunting stories about the frequent dissatisfactions of contemporary life. Like her critically acclaimed first novel, 2018’s Severance — which balanced millennial coming-of-age workplace satire with full-on zombie apocalypse horror in a world stricken by a plague that causes people to work themselves to death — Bliss Montage, out September 13, crosses the absurd with the appalling, simultaneously evoking both the fantastical and the all too real. The collection envelopes you in a dream-like ambience that shades into nightmare, tackling with wit and weird wisdom everything from abusive ex-boyfriends to immigration, from academia to unexpected pregnancy. Here, she discusses her new work.
Q: The stories in Bliss Montage create a woozy disorientation through a combination of realism and surrealism, of sadness and humor. How did you decide on that mix?
A: With many of the stories, I was inspired by dreams. If you attempt to transcribe a dream, however, it wouldn’t make much sense because dreams don’t adhere to narrative logic. So I took some elements of my dream life and created narratives for them, anchoring them in everyday consciousness.
Q: The threat of the sophomore slump looms for any artist. How did you handle the expectations?
A: During the first year of the pandemic, when Severance was receiving a second wave of attention, I wrote many of the stories in Bliss Montage. This time around, my instinct was to turn inward, maybe in part to shut out some of those expectations. I stayed home and wrote slowly, through lockdowns and quarantines.
Q: Many of your narrators in Bliss Montage are not exactly blissful. What makes you happy these days?
A: Whenever I feel depressed, something that makes me feel better is going to a less familiar neighborhood in Chicago and walking around. It slows my thinking down, forces me to pay attention to what’s happening at the ground level. Joy is harder to be directive about, since happiness is something that finds me, and it’s not within my power to find it. Joy, when it comes, usually it catches me off guard.
1. The Two Lives of Sara by Catherine Adel West. The Chicagoan’s sophomore novel takes readers to 1960s Memphis, where the titular character, having fled Chicago, lands in a boarding house run by the warm but mysterious Mama Sugar. The book traces the romance between Sara and a schoolteacher as they confront the hope and turbulence of the civil rights era. Out now
2. Liberation Day by George Saunders.The Oak Forest native returns with his first story collection in nearly a decade, filled with the hallmarks of his surreal, sci-fi style. Expect off-kilter tales set in dystopian theme parks, as usual. Four of the nine stories have never before been published. Oct. 18
3. Please Be Advised by Christine Sneed. A new entry in the storied tradition of workplace fiction, the Northwestern writing professor’s “novel in memos” lampoons office culture as it follows the employees of Quest Industries in their professional (and unprofessional) travails. Oct. 18 — Charlotte Goddu