Guided by a ghost through cross-cultural chaos

Novel

November 20, 2005|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Saving Fish From Drowning

Amy Tan

G.P. Putnam / 496 pages

Novelists lie; it's part of the job description. But in Amy Tan's Saving Fish From Drowning - her most ambitious work - the reader is ushered into a hall of mirrors where the writer begins by insisting that her story is largely true.

She writes of a chance visit to the American Society for Psychical Research and her discovery of so-called "Automatic Writing," messages dictated by the dead through the living. She stumbles onto the memories of Bibi Chen, a woman with whom Tan says she had a nodding acquaintance in San Francisco.

Chen shared a chatty narration of 11 tourists who disappeared in Myanmar, a trip that Chen had planned to lead before her mysterious death in San Francisco. Tan says it's "a story readers may well recognize," one that dominated the news for days.

Don't feel ignorant if you managed to miss those headlines and bulletins; Tan's author's note is largely false, as an interview on her Web site readily attests. The American Society for Psychical Research is real enough. But there was no Bibi Chen and no ill-fated trip abroad.

All in all, this author's note is a stilted, stuttering start to an otherwise sure-footed novel. Tan doesn't need this elaborate set-up to persuade readers that a ghost can tell a story. In Tan's skilled hands, a gourd could be the narrator.

Luckily, all Tan's trademark strengths - her lush language, her memorable characters, her wide-ranging curiosity about people and history - quickly come to the fore. And Bibi Chen, the would-be tour guide relegated to leading this trip from beyond the grave, proves to be excellent company. She is exactly as her earthly medium describes her: "A petite, feisty Chinese woman, opinionated and hilarious when she didn't intend to be."

Bibi has died just two weeks before this long-planned trip to Burma. (The old designation for Myanmar is Bibi's preferred nomenclature.) Her 11 charges decide to go anyway, if only because their deposits will be forfeited if they cancel at this late date.

It's a large, unruly crew - in the story and, to some extent, on the page. When a local tour guide attempts a head count - "the black lady, the plump man, the tall man with horsetail hair, the kissing girl, the man who drank too many beers, those three with baseball caps, another two with sun hats, and so on" - the reader feels a pang of empathy.

Once the group arrives at the China-Burma border, however, the cast is sorted out and the novel begins to realize its myriad possibilities. The tourists' political correctness and cultural insensitivity are played for laughs, but Tan's larger theme is deadly serious: Is there anyone more dangerous than the earnestly well-intentioned?

Tan's wit is wasted in places on easy pop-culture parodies; cable news and reality shows such as Survivor - rendered here as Darwin's Fittest - are fish-in-a-barrel targets. But she also demonstrates that her insight is not limited to mother-daughter relationships, a hallmark of Tan's fiction since her debut, The Joy Luck Club. The men in Saving Fish From Drowning are rendered with affectionate grace - sometimes randy, always flawed, ultimately kind and loving.

It gives away nothing to say that Tan's tourists survive their misadventure intact and, in some ways, improved. Their effect on the indigenous people they meet, however, is deliberately ambiguous.

Laura Lippman is an award-winning crime novelist, most recently of "To the Power of Three." She lives in Baltimore.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.