Saving Fish from Drowning

By Amy Tan. Published in 2006.

I adore the title of Amy Tan’s latest book. Her titles are usually more descriptive — The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Bonesetter’s Daughter — but Saving Fish from Drowning is a conceptual title, darkly funny and delicately hinting at one of the main themes of the novel.

Saving Fish from Drowning is about a group of American tourists who disappear while on vacation in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Narrating the story is Bibi Chen, the woman who organized the trip but who died under mysterious circumstances shortly before their departure. Bibi follows the group as a unseen spirit and relates not only what happens and what people say but also what people think and feel. Tan’s use of Bibi is brilliant; it allows her to employ an omniscient narrator while still telling the story — and commenting on it — from a single person’s distinct perspective.

Tan needs an omniscient narrator because one of her main themes is miscommunication. Over and over, people misread each other or act under mistaken beliefs, and Bibi underlines the misunderstandings by revealing the contrast between what they intend, what they relay and what others perceive. The most dramatic misunderstandings arise from the culture clash between the Americans and the people of China and Myanmar whom they meet on their travels, but the signals cross elsewhere, too: between friends, between lovers, between husband and wife, mother and daughter, father and son.

The universality of these misunderstandings indicates that Tan is aiming higher than a cheap satire of ignorant ugly American behavior. Certainly, ignorance often plays a role — in mistaking a shrine for a urinal, for example — but Tan seems to suggest that to some extent, failed communication is inevitable. If we can’t reliably understand those who raised us or those with whom we’ve chosen to spend our lives, how can we expect to completely understand strangers living on the other side of the world?

In other words, the tourists’ sin is not so much ignorance as it is a lack of humility, the prideful belief that they do understand precisely what is happening and that they know best how to solve the others’ problems. In some cases, though, they succeed only in saving fish from drowning — which doesn’t make that too successful as saviors.

As always, Tan’s writing is elegant and sharp with meaning. She also reveals a biting wit that I don’t recall from her previous novels. Usually she seems warmly affectionate toward nearly all of her characters, but in Saving Fish from Drowning, her satiric tongue keeps them at a distance. They are as well drawn and intriguing as ever, but we don’t get to know them as intimately as we do the women of the Joy Luck Club, for example.

As a satirist, Tan shows striking insight and perhaps too much ambition. Some of her targets seem too far afield. The jabs at reality television take the story from the edge of plausibility to some kind of bizarro land, and the book’s denouement sets its sights on so many subjects — from shady lawyers to rapacious pharmaceutical companies — that it loses focus.

These flaws are small, however, compared with the pleasure of reading something wonderfully fresh from Amy Tan. As much as I adore her previous novels, her mother-daughter and sister-sister subjects were becoming slightly stale. Saving Fish from Drowning makes it clear that Tan still has much more to say in her increasingly versatile yet unfailingly poetic voice.