Review of “Saving Fish From Drowning,” by Amy Tan
Amy Tan is among our great storytellers. In each of her previous novels, she has seduced readers with the intimate magic of her tale. In The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter’s Daughter, she enthralled us with the painful complexity of human relationships, especially between mothers and daughters. Obscure parts of history became as immediate as the reader’s own experience; she made us breathe the air of other times and places.
Her newest novel, Saving Fish From Drowning, half spoof and half fairy tale, is narrated by Bibi Chen, a San Francisco socialite and art dealer who was supposed to lead a group of high-powered friends on a trip down the Burma Road, starting in Lijiang in China and continuing across the border into Myanmar, appreciating cultural sites and natural beauty along the way. Bibi Chen has died under mysterious circumstances, but the group goes off on the trip anyway, and Bibi goes along as a spirit, invisible to the travelers, only sporadically able to influence what is going on, but very much involved with – and frequently rather annoyed by – her friends and their choices. A quirky narrator, alternately omniscient and helpless, she is enthusiastic, colorful and spirited, but also self-important, snobbish and didactic. Tan uses the contrived plot device of Bibi’s status inconsistently. When it suits Tan to give the dead woman special powers – to rearrange dates with a guide by appearing in his dream, for example – she does so. And when it suits her to make the narrator out to be impotent, she does that, too. Nonetheless, Bibi Chen is a compelling creature. She is also the only fully realized character in the book.
The trip is a comedy of errors for the group, all errors that Bibi sees coming but, being dead, cannot prevent. The trouble starts in China when they accidentally desecrate the Stone Bell Temple in Yunnan – by using one of the grottoes as a urinal, among other atrocities – and are cursed by a tribal chief. This leads to much bickering, at the end of which the travelers cut short the Chinese portion of their itinerary and cross into Myanmar. There the book’s central incident takes place: Karen tribesmen abduct the group at Inle Lake. The tribesmen have mistaken one of the party for the fabled Younger White Brother for whom they have waited 100 years, and who will lead the Karen people to victory. Most implausibly, the Americans do not realize that they are being held captive and continue for some weeks to believe they came to the Karen village deep in the jungle as part of a standard tourist agenda, and have been detained because the collapse of a bridge over a nearby gorge has destroyed the route back to civilization. The tribe, meanwhile, does not realize that their godhead is just an American teenager. The book plays lightly over the funny diction of Chinese and Burmese guides, awkward romantic dalliance among the travelers, and their emergence as a major international news story on GNN (Global News Network). Tan provides a great deal of local color and detailed touristic information, including recommended menus. You could plan your own vacation after you read this book.
Saving Fish From Drowning is well paced, as one would expect from Tan. Her lovely and evocative images add charm to the ordinary observation of landscape, in passages that might be dull in lesser hands. “The gnarled pine, I would have said, touch it. That is China. Horticulturalists from around the world have come to study it. Yet no one has ever been able to explain why it grows like a corkscrew, just as no one can adequately explain China. But like that tree, there it is, old, resilient and oddly magnificent.” For the most part, however, she fails to use her greatest gifts, historical lyricism and private emotion. The emphasis of Saving Fish From Drowning seems to be humor; these unconvincing characters are there to make you laugh. The book has clever moments and some good one-liners, but none of Tan’s books is funny; humor is not her forte. She has a clunky way with irony, and the sprawling slapstick set pieces at the core of this effort are draggy and inept. The sophistication that has served such elegant purpose in her previous books is overwhelmed here by well-intentioned crudeness, some of it sexual, much of it scatological (the guy with an enlarged prostate and his concerns that his stream of urine is too trickly; the details of the diarrhea that many of the travelers contract), which reads not as vigorously brazen but as depressingly self-conscious. The deliberately absurd plot, not moving enough for the kind of elegiac fiction that has made Tan famous and not meaningful enough to pass for allegory, appears to be satire. It aspires to the mordant social burlesque of Evelyn Waugh in Black Mischief, but it lacks Waugh’s lightness and wit, so the caricatures seem hackneyed instead of clever, the dialogue dim instead of playful, and the sorties into political incorrectness obnoxious and even colonialist rather than daringly honest and self-assured.
Great stories of clueless travelers misinterpreting the cultures around them abound. Candide and Gulliver are the archetypes, but the form has been used unerringly by Katherine Anne Porter in Ship of Fools, hilariously by Rose Macaulay in The Towers of Trebizond, and recently to great humorous and philosophical effect by Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything Is Illuminated. Tan’s characters are a run of clichés: the gay man who, alone among the travelers, imagines the Grotto of Female Genitalia as slimy and full of bats; the rankly egocentric aging Lothario, forever making badly timed passes; the idiotically naïve, idealistic daughter of an oft-married socialite; the anxious woman who carries a medical kit sufficient for a field hospital (though she seems not to have packed the antimalarials that any real American tourist going to Myanmar would take). These all occur within the more general context of the persistent vulgarity, rudeness and genial solipsism of the Americans, and the primitivism and inanity of the Burmese. The book is patronizing to the Karen people, and it is patronizing of its readers, too, and though Tan would like to pass this off as Bibi’s attitude, it feels like the work of the author. In a peculiar “note to the reader” at the front of the book, Tan tells us that Bibi’s story was conveyed to a California psychic and that she has just rejiggered the narrative for popular consumption. The psychic she names is a real person, but the bulk of the book’s content is manifestly fictional; and so the opening salvos of the book feel manipulative. This does not help Tan’s case.
“Who wants to read stories like that?” Bibi Chen tellingly asks at one point. “Memoirs of sacrilege, torture and abuse, one after another – they are so difficult to read, without a speck of hope to lift you, no redeeming denouements, only the inevitable descent into the bottomless pits of humanity. . . . The truth is, I’ve always preferred the old fictions about any ancient land. I read to escape to a more interesting world, not to be locked up in a sweltering prison.” Amy Tan is wonderful at old fictions of ancient lands; let us hope she will return to that territory in the future.