Drowning in Words

By Velvet Belle Tree

I have just finished reading Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan (2005). IÕve read other books by her, and the one that I liked the best was her first, The Joy Luck Club.

The blurb on the back flyleaf is by Robert Olen Butler. He says that it is ŅÉ about the relationship between the individual heart and the universal soul.Ó I have absolutely no idea what that means, except that itÕs supposed to sound profound.

The book begins with a section labeled ŅA Note to the Reader.Ó In it, Tan tells about getting the idea for the book after taking refuge in an institute for psychical research in Manhattan. There she found books of automatic writing. One is by a medium dying of breast cancer who channels a San Franciscan woman named Bibi Chen. We are told that Bibi Chen is a real woman who died mysteriously. Tan contacts the medium and decides to tell BibiÕs story. She even gives the date of death of the medium.

As I read the book, this bothered me. So I did whatÕs become natural to me — I googled Bibi Chen. That led me to an interview with Amy Tan in which she said that the fiction began with the Note to the Reader. Now, I find that dishonest. This is obviously presented to the reader as a real explanation of how the book began.

She explained in the interview that she wanted an omniscient narrator who would also have a personality and distinct point of view. So I decided to accept it as a literary device. The only problem is that in a few instances in the book, BibiÕs ghost influences characters and the story. But it is not consistent as I will show later.

The story concerns a group Bibi gets together to tour China and Burma / Myanmar. She dies mysteriously (strangely, the ghost does not know how she died) right before the trip is to begin and a substitute tour guide is found.

To begin, Bibi tells about her upbringing in Shanghai and flight to America. This is one of the most interesting parts of the book and is really TanÕs forte. But it doesnÕt have much to do with the rest of the story, except for the very ending that tells how she actually died.

The main part of the story involves the disappearance of the group on a lake on Christmas day, except for Harry, a TV personality, who slept late that morning. Their Burmese guide, who goes by the English name Walter, has promised them a Christmas surprise, which is actually some school children singing for them. While visiting a village, Walter goes to round up Rupert, a fifteen year old boy. Rupert comes back but Walter doesnÕt. Their boatman, who goes by the name of Black Spot, tells them that Walter has gone ahead and will join them.

They blithely go with the boatmen, who previously showed no knowledge of English. They go to another part of the shore and then into a rickety old truck. Then they follow them through the jungle and finally across a rope bridge which spans a deep gorge. When they get to the other side of the bridge, one of the boatmen surreptitiously disengages the bridge so that it looks like it collapsed.

The boatmen are members of a group of Karen tribesmen who have hidden themselves in the jungle. They believe that Rupert is the Younger White Brother, who will save the tribe by making them invisible and getting them good land, or whatever. Why do they think that? Because Rupert has been seen doing magic card tricks and uttering patter about making things invisible. There are also boy/girl twins who smoke cheroots and are thought to be divinities by their grandmother. (This is based on a real case of twin boys which I remember reading about.)

The group thinks the tribe is the Christmas surprise. TheyÕre given food and made welcome. When they try to leave, they find that the bridge has collapsed. Shortly thereafter, several of the group get malaria and are slowly brought back to health.

The naivetˇ of the group is astonishing. The adults are all educated people whoÕve traveled before. No one ever suspects that theyÕre being held against their will, that the bridge hasnÕt really been destroyed. When Rupert says that he wants noodles, noodles appear. The group wonders about this but come to the conclusion that the noodles were sequestered for some reason. They never suspect that Black Spot and the others go back and forth across the bridge to get supplies.

Believe it or not, there is a TV in the jungle run by batteries powered by a bike and getting the signal from a satellite dish. All of those things were ŅstolenÓ by Black Spot. (Actually, they were stolen with the consent of the owner, but that comes out later, and is not really necessary to the plot.) Harry has been going on TV and the groupÕs disappearance becomes a global cause celebre. When a tape that one of them made appears on TV, they donÕt get suspicious about how it got out. SomeoneÕs comment about a crow taking things is accepted.

When the Myanmar government signs an agreement on TV giving amnesty to the Karen tribesmen, the bridge is miraculously fixed. And they suspect nothing. When they say that some of them canÕt walk out because theyÕre still weak from malaria, a satellite phone miraculously appears. And they still suspect nothing.

I mentioned at the beginning, that the ghost sometimes influences the story. She is able to get into WalterÕs dream to get him to expedite the visas. (They were coming in overland from China, while all other tourists came in by plane.) HeÕs very confused when heÕs told that she died a few weeks before, because he insists that he spoke to her the previous day. So if she can get into peopleÕs dreams, why doesnÕt she tell the group that theyÕre being held against their wills? Instead of giving Harry an erotic dream, why doesnÕt she tell him where his friends are?

After they are rescued, Tan goes on to tell us what happened to everyone for the next year or so. I must admit that by that point I was just skimming. But weÕre told things that really have nothing to do with the rest of the story. While they were in captivity, thereÕs a broadcast from WyattÕs hometown, where a woman says that sheÕs his girlfriend. He has no idea who she is. When he returns and sees her, he remembers that sheÕs the woman who taught him about sex when he was 16 and she 31 and continued till he was 20 and left. He recognizes her 11 year old son as his. So what? This has nothing to do with anything that has come before in the book.

It finally ends with Vera, a friend of BibiÕs who was on the trip, finding out how Bibi died. It was actually a freak accident and has a relation to the story told of BibiÕs childhood. BibiÕs story is interesting, but has nothing to do with what happens in Myanmar.

I didnÕt find any character in the story that really interested me or who I could really care about. Maybe thatÕs just me and other people would find them sympathetic. I know that the story was supposed to be, at least in part, humorous and there was some humor, but not as the blurb said Ņlaugh-out-load-funny.Ó

The blurb also called the book Ņprofoundly wise.Ó I certainly didnÕt find anything wise about it. Just saw people acting without ever thinking. ThatÕs not what I call wise.