a good self-referential moment in a novel

Posted on February 2, 2010

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Usually I find these moments, despite their logic-twisting pleasure, to be a cutesy waste of time. See, for example, the much lauded Atmospheric Disturbances, which consisted solely of quirky chapter headings, numb narration and an endless slew of self-referential gags that completely detached the novel from anything worth caring about. I took it on a trip, slogged through 3/4 of it, and then, upon returning home, put it down for good. You should not be able to do this with a halfway decent novel.

Anyway, reading Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, another book I picked up blindly because of its inclusion on a lot of best of 2008 lists, I came across a self-referential instance that should serve as a model. The novel centers around a fictional participant in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests named Dai Wei who is now in a coma, stuck wandering through his memories while his body slowly decays (I didn’t even realize how bleak this sounded until I said it to someone who asked what I was reading and watched her face fall). During a memory of the years leading up to that final protest, Dai Wei relays to us that a book of stories called Stick Out Your Tongue by a writer named Ma Jian came out and was banned by the Chinese government.

Here is why this is cool. Aside from the usual self-referential logic fun, it takes our fictional protagonist and plants him firmly in the real world, the world inhabited by us and by the author of the book we are reading. It does this instantly and concisely, without a single wasted word, reminding us that although this is a novel, the horrific repression of the Chinese government is as real as the vivid, forbidden love affairs of the fictional students.

The novel in general is really, really excellent so far. Not something I would have predicted that I would find so stirring, nor something I would have picked up based on my usual interests. Branching out is good.

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