Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

The Ins and Outs of Modern Chinese Fictional Characters

Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

The Ins and Outs of Modern Chinese Fictional Characters

Article excerpt

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I love writing novels for many reasons, yet the most important is the experience of exploration and self-discovery inherent in writing fiction. When a fascinating character suddenly walks into your novel, when an amusing phrase comes out of his mouth, when this character and his words are, to some degree, inspiring to your cultural predicament, you might feel quite shaken up. And why would you be surprised? Because all of sudden, you realize that the character you are writing is, in many ways, yourself-you feel everything your character feels. Another familiar character is the cat you wrote into that novel-he stretches his body then jumps up to the roof, while you stretch your arms out before pounding away at the keyboard again.

During the winter of 1997 while I was writing The Afternoon Poetics, that unfortunate protagonist Mr. Bian spoke to me from out of nowhere. He said, "When you type these words on the keyboard, you are living outside yourself." A chill went through my entire body as I finished this line with a reawakened awareness of the isolation between a man and his experience. Despite what we may want to believe, we are not the only source of our experiences; we do not control the ways this world can be known; for a single person's experience is always incomplete and will always fall far short of the whole. Like infants' whose inner organs rule their behavior, control their desires, and determine their needs, people living in society today are equally guided by the discourse of others and our desires are largely determined by mass media. Such a line of thought opens up a kind of a meta-experience, or our experience of how we experience the world. Still, it is important to note that regardless of whether one possesses indirect experience, direct experience, or direct indirect experience, what it means to be human is in flux, and we cannot witness another's singing and crying from their "inside."

Many people are nostalgic for the old days of in the nineteenth century, that golden age of the novel. Even more people view novels from that age as the standard for measuring the quality of contemporary novels. During a spring 2002 seminar, one critic spoke highly of my novel Hua Qiang ... (Colouratura); however, after offering those kind words, he said, "Compared with the novels of the nineteenth century, this novel still has drawbacks. For example. . . ." Hearing this, some people couldn't help laughing to themselves. It's true that this man had lost his mind, and you could even go boating on the vast, empty seas that filled his head. This reminds me of another man who lost his grip on reality, and who once wrote the most arrogant and self-abasing, the most witty and boring passage I have ever read. That man was Hemingway, who shot himself in the end. Hemingway once said, "I tried for Mr. Turgeniefffirst and it wasn't too hard. Tried for Mr. Maupassant . . . and it took four of the best stories to beat him. He's beaten and if he were around he would know it. Then I tried for another guy . . . and think I fought a draw with him. This other dead character. . . ."1 The dead character with whom he fought was Standhal: "I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I've fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had the edge in the last one."2 I think Hemingway was already quite inebriated when he wrote this dialogue. It seems to me that the critics from that 2002 seminar are not the only ones who lost their minds, for Hemingway had lost his as well. Nevertheless, behind those crazy words hides a secret yearning.readers always expect to see the questing hero, who faces insurmountable challenges on water and on land. He can also rise up, reach the clouds, and look out over the whole of human existence. His every cough is like thunder; even his urine seems like a blessed rainfall. He is a hero and a god. …

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