Ma Jian writes about China with the obsessiveness of a writer in exile who cares about only one society. There is no doubting his passion and sense of urgency. “We’ve been crushed and silenced,” says a colleague of Dai Wei’s whose legs are trampled under a P.L.A. tank. “If we don’t take a stand now, we will be erased from the history books.” Dai Wei, whose inner life is periodically stimulated by visitors to his sickbed, notes each new diversion—cell phones, e-mail, video disks, anti-Western nationalism, New Age religion, the Olympics—that beguiles his countrymen away from the idealism of 1989. “As society changes, new words and terms keep popping up, such as: sauna, private car ownership, property developer, mortgage and personal instalment loan,” he notes. He watches helplessly as his own decaying body is commodified, his urine used in quack therapy, and his still responsive penis employed by seekers of kinky sex. His hapless mother resorts to selling one of his kidneys to pay for his treatment. Finally, a real-estate developer from Hong Kong demolishes his cramped home during Beijing’s pre-Olympic prettification. In the novel’s Wagnerian finale, the bulldozers of the hustling new China and the tanks of the P.L.A. combine in a frenzy of violence and destruction.