Americans love to be entertained by dead people -- think Mary Alice from Desperate Housewives or Susie from Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones.
Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club, uses this literary device in her new novel, Saving Fish from Drowning. The result: a hilarious yet politically charged tale packed with illusions and the human capacity for love. The novel is narrated by the dead Bibi Chen, and what a story Bibi tells.
Before she dies, Bibi was all set to lead 11 tourists on a trip to Burma, also known as Myanmar. She still gets to accompany them from her perch in the spirit world, even when they vanish on Christmas Day.
Their disappearance doesn't occur until halfway through the book. Tan uses the first half to do what she does best: develop her characters, delve into their psyches and peel away their layers of insecurities and personal issues until their hearts are laid bare.
And you might say their hearts are the heart of this book. The 12 main characters (five men, five women and two children) are active participants in the universal struggle to be loved for who they are -- not for who their loved ones and potential lovers want them to be.
Tan makes them so real that readers will be able to see a part of themselves. If you combined their idiosyncrasies, you'd have an amalgam of humankind's foibles: the lovelorn, the infertile, the sex-starved, the hypochondriacs, the arrogant, the insecure, the paranoid and the self-absorbed.
The tourists include Harry, a celebrity dog trainer, whose plans to seduce one of the women on the tour are thwarted when he catches the bed on fire and puts it out with one of her designer dresses; Benny, the overweight and very insecure, secret-keeping escort who takes over the tour after Bibi's demise; and Heidi, an anxious bundle of nerves who is prepared for any emergency. She's carrying antibiotics, syringes, hypodermic needles, even IV solution.
Throughout the novel, Tan also deals with "ugly Americans" and their ignorance of other cultures. One clueless tourist, for example, urinates on a sacred shrine, and they all carry a sense of entitlement.
As one of their Asian guides remarks: "Being American has ... more to do with the assumptions you hold dear and true -- your inalienable rights, your pursuit of happiness. I, sad to say, don't possess those assumptions. I cannot undertake the pursuit." Others in the group believe their good deeds and money can help change a country's politics. When they object to the sight of dying fish in a marketplace, one of their guides says fishermen approach fishing with reverence. "They scoop up the fish and bring them to shore. They say they are saving fish from drowning. Unfortunately ... the fish do not recover."
Dwight, one of the tourists, comments that it's "no worse than what we do to other countries ... killing them as an unfortunate consequence of helping them."
Saving Fish from Drowning succeeds because Tan combines humor, tragedy, politics, even a game of Survival Burma-style, without compromising a rollicking, adventure-filled story.
*Read an excerpt at books.usatoday.com.
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