Bibi Chen’s ghost is a novelist’s dream. In Saving Fish from Drowning, Amy Tan enlists the specter not only to report the thoughts and feelings of Bibi’s fellow characters, but also to deliver omniscient and frequently biting insights as their picaresque journey unfolds. The result is an inventive blend of comedy and adventure, with just a soupçon of the macabre.
From the "note to the reader" that prefaces this multiworldly novel, we learn that Bibi alive was "a petite, feisty Chinese woman, opinionated, and hilarious when she didn’t intend to be." Alas, just days before she is to lead a group of 11 friends on a tour of western China and Burma, the 63-year-old art collector is found dead, apparently murdered. The grief-stricken tourists must proceed on their own, with Bibi joining them "in spirit."
The travelers include a "black lady, quite tall, who wears long stripey caftans and walks like an African queen"; the dog trainer host of television’s "The Fido Files"; an evolutionary biologist and her younger behavioral psychologist husband; a bamboo grower and his 15-year-old son; an attractive young hypochondriac suffering from post-traumatic stress; an art curator with an adolescent daughter and "an accent shaped by her Shanghainese birth, her childhood in Sao Paulo, her British teachers, and her studies at the Sorbonne"; and a wannabe human rights activist and her "tall, slim-hipped, hairlessly muscled" new lover. Bibi lets us know up front that her friends are "rich, intelligent, and spoiled." Her meticulous plans for this expedition are clearly doomed.
"Those who practice restraint might in turn be rewarded with a prolonged life, even immortality," Bibi intones as the tour gets underway, "whereas those who don’t will surely die as a direct result of their uncontrolled impulses." The dog trainer promptly urinates on a Chinese mountain shrine. The aspiring activist and her lover are caught in flagrante in a temple grotto, and the bamboo grower’s son rock-climbs up a sacred stone carving.
These are characters notable more for fecklessness than restraint. But Bibi’s tongue-in-cheek commentary implies that, however inevitable their punishment, death is not really an option. Even after the group enters the territory of the repressive Myanmar regime and is involuntarily disappeared into the Burmese outback—a detour emphatically not on Bibi’s original itinerary—any lessons the Americans learn are bound to be more colorful than dire.
The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for those they encounter in the process. The damage the tourists leave in their wake involves more than a few endangered species. "Saving fish from drowning," a Burmese euphemism for the act of fishing, becomes serious code for that nasty western habit of "killing people" around the globe "as an unfortunate consequence of helping them." Not even Bibi Chen’s unwitting friends are exempt from this pattern of lethal kindness.
Even—perhaps especially—within comedy lurks tragedy, Tan warns us. Among the living, dance the dead, and the two states are more intimately connected than we mortals have any idea. But then again, in life as in fiction all is illusion, a matter of "the author’s sleight-of-hand." If we take ourselves or our stories too seriously, we risk missing the magic.
Reviewed by Aimee Liu