Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Well, it only took two months, but I finished "Saving Fish From Drowning," the final Amy Tan novel. And one of my favorites.
So why did it take me so long to finish reading this a second time? To the point where I lost ALL WILL to read at all for two months?
Because this is a thick, slogging book of intensity.
"Fish" is not an easy read. Oh, sure on a micro level it is. There's not too many hard ideas and certainly no difficult words or sentences to trod through, but on a macro scale it's brain sucking mind-number.
The approach and basic gist of the story is simple: 12 American tourists, all immensely spoiled and unrepentantly Western go on a Christmas visit to southern China followed by Myanmar. During this trip they create every foreigner faux pas possibly, from peeing on fertility goddesses to getting mixed up with junta. (And a side of every sickness under the sun.) Eventually, they are absconded by a hidden Karen tribe that are convinced the young boy in their group is the second coming of The Younger White Brother, who will save them from the oppressive regime of Myanmar's militaristic government.
Sounds a bit...bizarre? It is. Because the tribe is convinced they are going to be saved by getting a hit reality show on American TV.
"Saving Fish From Drowning" is not the usual Amy Tan fare. And for that, I'm glad. There is a hint of the usual Chinese mother-daughter theme here, but overall it is a long, winding tale of American superiority clashing with Southeast Asian sensibilities. The thing that makes it really unique, both for Tan and modern literature as a whole, is the narration style. You see, the book is narrated by a ghost. Not just any ghost. An omniscient ghost, who can go into anyone's head at any moment. With over 12 characters, that comes in pretty handy.
Our beloved narrator is Bibi Chen, a recently perished art critic who was the original organizer for our Americans' Asian trip. Due to her untimely death (the circumstances of which remain a mystery until the end) the trip is handed off to one of the 12, who is, of course, completely in over his head. Nothing on the trip goes right from the beginning, and in the end, Bibi the ghost (who cannot communicate with the living world at all, only watch and report) is the only one who knows what's going on with either side. It's almost a comedy of errors. I say almost, because the comedy style is very dry and sarcastic (and sometimes downright black and bleak) while the errors could have easily been avoided to the point where you want to roll your eyes.
The biggest fault of this story comes with the narration style. It's very hard to do omniscient well, especially when it's very tempting to go into every single head and report for pages on end about what people are doing. I'm afraid Tan does fall into this trap. This story could've easily been cut down. But I do not feel that the extra length is a detriment to the overall story. Nor do I feel that this story falls into the Western Savior trap with the 12 Americans "saving" the oppressed Karen tribe. Because really, the Americans just make everything worse. Everywhere they go. From my own American point of view, I found this hilarious, especially as someone who has lived in Asia and seen American superiority ruin the most mundane things. And without giving too much away, the Americans don't really "save" the Karen tribe. But that's another thing I love about this story. The ending is not happy, nor it is "hopeful" or "tragic." It's just real. Some characters discover new points of of views in their lives, and others are completely ruined. Tan's dry way of pointing out rational American thinking is on point as usual.
As I mentioned above, this is not an "easy" read, unless you have a lot of time to kill. It's fairly time consuming. But it's a great read, full of hilarious scenarios and scenes full of so much second hand embarrassment you want to crawl beneath your bed covers and pretend you're not American (if you are.) Meanwhile, you will also be treated to amazing imagery, shockingly real dialogue, and, as they say, a whole lotta heart. Amy Tan outdoes herself in this book. But don't come into it expecting another Joy Luck Club. Come into it expecting a large, multi-layered story about the human condition's ability to have too much hope for its own good.
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