Review: Disturbing tale flirts with horror, detailing strange life in strange times

Ma Ling is the author of “Happiness Montage”. Photo: Anjalipinto

Each character in Ling Ma’s new short story book “Montage” responds to their situation with varying degrees of inertia. Out of all eight stories, one could imagine something better, but like Candace Chen, the protagonist in Jack Ma’s first creepy novel, Severance, none can Arouse the will to change.

“We’re brand strategists, real estate attorneys, HR experts, and personal financial advisors. We didn’t know what to do, so we googled everything. We googled how to survive in the wild…” Candice said in reviewing the early days of the global pandemic. As the situation got worse, she desperately clings to normalcy, even if it ostensibly no longer exists, and is paralyzed to take action when the pandemic becomes deadly, wiping out much of the world’s population.

Written in 2018, long before the actual pandemic, “Severance,” which has nothing to do with the Apple TV show, depicts a crumbling civilization whose citizens are not only powerless, but bizarrely succumbed to their own destiny. The stories in “Happiness Montage” somehow got weirder and more disturbing. In “Tomorrow,” for example, a woman is barely alert enough to her arms sticking out of her vagina during an older pregnancy. She just got used to her discomfort, telling herself, “At least it’s just the arm.”

“Happiness Montage” by Ma Ling. Photo: Farrar Strauss and Giroud

In the book’s opening story, “Los Angeles,” a woman appears to have shed her past: From her mansion on the hills, she gazes at the coral stucco converted motel she once lived in. Now she is living a prosperous life with her husband and children, and 100 ex-boyfriends. Not only was she never able to shake off the trauma of her youth, she chose to marry someone who only talked about money. Literally. Whenever she asks about his day, he replies: “$$$$$$$” or “$$$$, $$$$$$$$”.

She floats in her privileged life, drinking golden milk from Moon Juice, shopping at Barneys, and flying to Marin for dinner, “where Danielle Steele lives.” Especially when she’s more invested in two out of 100 old boyfriends than her two precocious children. She is in a strange purgatory where all the traps of wealth have not escaped her.

In “G,” another unnamed female narrator will change her situation by moving to California. The night before she leaves, she reluctantly visits her friend Bonnie, who almost forces her to take G, a drug that puts her in an altered state,” except for a Guston eyeball bouncing in Amsterdam, Thursday night customers Dine in the open air.” The drug made both women invisible — literally — and what started with the girls’ night became increasingly reckless and ultimately horrific.

There’s a touch of magical realism in Ma’s imagination, a bit of horror, and often emotional estrangement, as if the characters aren’t experiencing their own lives, but watching alternate versions of themselves move around the world. Despite friends, family, money, career advancement, and other traditional markers of success, they were unable to find peace — let alone happiness.

Happiness Montage
Ling Ma
(Farrar, Strauss, and Giroud; 242 pages; $26)

  • Alison Ariff

    Allison Arieff is a San Francisco writer and editor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Urban Lab, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and Dwell.

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