Fans of Amy Tan are in for a surprise with her latest novel, SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING. In this satirical tale of cross-cultural faux pas, international media, and uninformed American goodwill turned mostly bad, Ms. Tan writes an Asia-centered version of Tom Wolfe's BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES (or perhaps Richard Dooling's WHITE MAN'S GRAVE). Only here, she substitutes Burma (Myanmar) for the Bronx and GNN (read CNN) for the media precipitator of much of the climactic action. The end result, much like Wolfe's 1987 novel, is amusing for its social commentary but light in its literary heft, substituting caricature and fantastic naivete for character and improbable events for plot. Nevertheless, the result is quite entertaining, although hardly likely to spawn any anti-CNN, save the rain forests, or boycott Burma movements.
Ms. Tan chooses as her storytelling vehicle the ghost of a wealthy art patron, Bibi Chen, who has just met an untimely and rather ghastly violent death. Bibi had already organized an art and culture tour for a number of her longtime friends that had planned to follow the fabled Burma Road from Lijiang in southwestern China (claimed by some to be the inspiration for Shangri-La) across the closed border into Myanmar. Despite Bibi's death, her friends decide to follow her itinerary with a new (and unbeknown to them, gay, seizure-prone, and completely inexperienced) guide, Bennie Trueba y Cela. A series of misadventures and misunderstandings plague their trip, most of which the omniscient Bibi-ghost is powerless to prevent, but the group eventually crosses the border with Bibi's mysterious help. Once in Myanmar, more misunderstandings ensue and the twelve travelers finds themselves unknowingly involved in a sort of pseudo-Christian, second coming of Christ cult with members of a Burmese minority group called the Karen. All but one of the group disappear into the deep jungle on what they believe is a Christmas surprise part of their tour, but the rest of the world believes they have either been lost, killed, or kidnapped by anti-government insurgents.
SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING could well have been subtitled "Murphy's Law Comes to Myanmar," or perhaps "The Laws of Unintended Consequences." Innocent behavior turns to cultural insult, and everyone's best intentions create the worst of results. Ms. Tan draws of picture of hopeless cross-cultural confusion, where outdoor latrines turns out to be a sacred shrines, a copy of Stephen King's MISERY becomes the Holy Bible, and smuggled jewels and generous gifts of American dollars threaten or result in violent death at the hands of dictatorial governments. This indeed is the underlying premise of the Chinese fable about saving fish from drowning, that such acts of charity mask other objectives and often do little but harm to their intended recipients.
While Amy Tan's story line is serviceable in its role as socio-cultural satire, her characters are annoyingly stereotyped. The cast is filled with bumbling and culturally obtuse "ugly Americans," from the oversexed television star Harry Bailley to his sex-starved and swooning Chinese-American bombshell of a love object Marlena Chu, from the ultra-hypochondriac Heidi to the remarkably underdrawn Vera, a black woman who objects to the phrase "lazy eye" because "lazy" is a pejorative word. Most editorially unforgivable is the last chapter, a 42-page appendage that adds little and detracts much from the author's focus on events and misunderstandings in Myanmar, in the media, in intergovernmental relations, and among the group members themselves. Even the true nature of Bibi's death, once revealed, lends much weight to the outcome - just one more example of a fish saved from drowning only to die as an unintended result.
With SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING, Amy Tan has abandoned her usual cultural assimilation haunts for satirical realpolitik, tossing a Jon Stewart eye at American values and behavior and the dangers of unthinking, ratings-chasing media sensationalism. While this book is not on a literary par with Ms. Tan's THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER, it is nevertheless an engaging and often humorous read.