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Tan's Latest Novel a Jumble of Characters, Ideas, Plotlines

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"Saving Fish From Drowning" by Amy Tan; Putnam ($26.95)


New books by Amy Tan are always eagerly awaited, but I would have been happy to wait a while longer for "Saving Fish From Drowning." It feels like a draft of a novel that should have gone through several more drafts.

From her first novel, "The Joy Luck Club," we learned that Tan is one of the best storytellers around. But she seemed to want to tell too many stories - the book threatened to become an anthology rather than a novel. Her subsequent novels, "The Kitchen God's Wife," "The Hundred Secret Senses" and "The Bonesetter's Daughter," were story-rich, too, but somewhat more structured and focused. All of them were variations on a theme: the communication gap between generations and sexes and cultures.

"Saving Fish From Drowning" is all about miscommunication, too, and not just between old and young or men and women or native and foreign, but also between the living and the dead. The narrator of the new book is the ghost of Bibi Chen, a San Francisco dealer in Asian antiques, who was found dead in her Union Square shop, the evidence suggesting that she was murdered.

Bibi had planned to guide a dozen of her friends on a tour of Southeast Asia, including Burma, despite the harshness of the military regime that prefers to call the country Myanmar - a name that Bibi says "sounds sneaky ... like the twitchy miao-miao of a cat before it pounces on a trapped mouse." When the group decides to continue with the tour, someone utters the wish that Bibi "join us in spirit." She does.

So we get a Bibi's-eye-view of the misadventures of the group, which will eventually be led astray into the Burmese jungle. Bibi is a semi-omniscient narrator, able to enter the thoughts of the characters but still uncertain of the facts of her own death, the mystery of which isn't solved until the novel's end.

But Tan, with her penchant for telling as many stories as possible, has crammed the novel with too many characters. An apparent inspiration for the book is "The Canterbury Tales": One of the tour group members is named Harry Bailley, which is also the name of the innkeeper who plays host to Chaucer's pilgrims.

Tan's pilgrims are a gallery of upscale Bay Area types. In addition to Harry, a Brit who has become an American TV star with his show on dog training, "The Fido Files," they include a cosmopolitan Chinese-born art curator and her 11-year-old daughter; an evolutionary biologist and MacArthur fellow, accompanied by her behavioral psychologist husband and her health-obsessed half-sister; a black woman who directs a nonprofit devoted to African-American causes; a super-rich heiress, head of her family's foundation, and her latest lover; the owner of a bamboo farm near Salinas and his 15-year-old son; and a gay graphic artist and museum docent who takes over as leader of the group even though he has never been to China or Burma.

Trust me: You should take notes when you first encounter these characters if you want to sort out Wendy from Heidi and Dwight from Wyatt later on. The most memorable of them is Harry, whose freewheeling ego and libido have a way of stirring things up. Early in the tour, for example, he provokes outrage when he mistakes a Buddhist shrine for a urinal, the first of several calamities of cultural miscommunication.

But the real trouble starts when the 15-year-old, Rupert, performs a card trick, attracting the attention of some boatmen, members of a tribe that has been persecuted by the Burmese government. The tribe has a legend that its salvation lies in the appearance of "the Reincarnated One, the Younger White Brother, the Lord of Nats." (Nats, which Bibi explains are nature spirits "given to making a fuss when they were not treated with respect," play their own role in the story.)

Convinced by Rupert's sleight-of-hand that he's the Reincarnated One, the boatmen lure the group - with the exception of Harry, who has overslept - to a remote village in the jungle, accessible only by a rope bridge (which the boatmen then lower and conceal once the group has crossed over).

Though the village is cut off from the world, the boatmen, the tribe's liaison with the outside, have swiped a TV set, a satellite dish and a bicycle-powered generator. So the unwitting abductees get to watch the media phenomenon that the left-behind Harry helps generate when the news breaks about their disappearance.

The abduction of the tourists takes place halfway through the book. Up to then, we have meandered through what appears to be a reworking of "Innocents Abroad" - amusing incidents of cultural confusion. So when she finally gets around to the main plot of the novel, Tan has almost too much material to crowd in - the experiences of the tourists in the village, the back story that explains the origins of the "Younger White Brother" myth, the media carnival, the diplomatic and political maneuverings and the summing up of the fates of all of the major characters. It's a lot to process so late in the novel.

"Saving Fish From Drowning" is often very funny, and much of what Tan has to say - about Americans abroad, about media hype, about TV reality shows, about cultural misunderstanding, about political repression - is on point. Unfortunately, she sometimes loses control of tone, especially when she wants to emphasize the Burmese regime's record of political repression, torture, murder and genocide.

The tour group learns, for example, that one of the reasons the villagers have hidden in the jungle is that some of them were forced by the Burmese military to act as human mine detectors. One of them explains, "They are going in front of soldiers, go right, go left. When the mine is exploding, no more danger, and then soldiers they very happy." Such a jolt of brutal reality feels out of key in an often farcical and broadly satiric novel framed by the fantasy of a ghost-narrator.

Tan's imagination and ingenuity are apparent throughout the book, which is chockablock with bright ideas, clever observations, entertaining characters and strong feelings. But it has too many of all of these, jumbled up together. Would it have hurt to save some of them for another novel?


(c) 2005, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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