For a certain generation of exile writers from mainland China, there is no such place as home. As his searing memoir, Red Dust, recounts, the dissident painter Ma Jian left his apartment in Beijing and traveled throughout China in the early 1980s, his vagabond existence motivated in no small way by the threat of arrest on charges of "spiritual pollution." What Ma found during his three-year journey was a country that had been psychically annihilated by the unchecked insanity of the Cultural Revolution. Shortly after his return to Beijing, Ma fled mainland China for Hong Kong, and he now lives in London. But in his sharp, black comic novel The Noodle Maker, he returns to his native country to sketch the brutalized inner lives of ordinary Chinese who endure a
"spiritual vacuum."

The Noodle Maker comprises less a single narrative than a series of deftly interwoven stories framed by a long drunken meal during which a depressed propaganda writer and a professional blood donor trade philosophiesócall it My Dinner with Wei. Ma's stories, like many of those by his Chinese avant-garde contemporaries, veer toward the ghoulishly fantastic: A young crematorium owner sends his living (and willing) mother to the funeral fires; an actress feeds herself to a tiger onstage; a three-legged dog eloquently criticizes the inhumanity of human beings. This morbid exaggeration is partly for dark comic effect and partly to dramatize a world in which the rules of normal human life have been stripped away. "Perhaps Western faces can look gentle, calm, kind," Ma's writer muses. "But in China, not only have those expressions disappeared, but so have all similar expressions of pity, compassion and respect." The socialist paradise in these stories is run on Hobbesian principles, and survival depends on one's willingness to keep a boot on one's neighbor's neck.

Thanks in part to an almost willful act of forgettingófirst of the Cultural Revolution and then of Tiananmen Squareóthe bustling China of today bears little resemblance to the stultified world Ma describes, one of "bare wheatfields after the harvest." But there are still winners and losers in the new China, and Ma's satirist sympathies lie with those too damaged by the past to board the country's express train to the future. "A wasted generation," says one. "How can a society numbed by dictatorship ever find its way in the modern world?" It's a question Ma raises again and again in this excellent novel, and one China will have to answer for itself.