Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Written Word Wed. -- Not Your Typical Tan

After a couple of weeks worth of stalling, I finally sat down and typed up my thoughts on the latest Amy Tan novel. Next week, expect to see my review of Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars, which I hurriedly read this past weekend so I could pass it on to Rocket G'ovich when I see her this upcoming weekend. I also stayed up really late reading the first volume of Robin Hobb's The Tawny Man trilogy; got about 400 pages read yesterday. Doubt I'll get the series done by the weekend, but you never know; borderline OCD can be a powerful thing . . .

Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

In the introduction, Amy Tan purports that this book is based on a famous incident of 11 American tourists who went missing while in Burma, as related through a medium channeling the spirit of Bibi Chen, antique dealer and organizer of the ill-fated trip. Chen's untimely (and suspicious) death shortly before the Burma trip sets the stage for all that is to follow; shorn of her expertise and stabilizing presence, the ugly Americans run roughshod over their substitute tour guide, ignoring Chen's itinerary in favor of their own ideas, which subsequently lead to food poisoning, desecration of holy shrines, and an unhealthy interest from a local "lost" tribe who decide that one of the party is the reincarnation of Younger White Brother, Lord of the Nats, the tribe's prophesied savior. It is this tribe who will be responsible for the disappearance of the tourists, spiriting them away deep into the jungles of Burma, while the one member of their party not taken begins a campaign to force the totalitarian Burmese government to come to his companions' aid. Narrating it all is the disembodied Chen, whose new existence as spirit allows her unhindered access to the thoughts and feelings of all of the players involved, but without the ability to influence or guide them away from their often disastrous decisions.

Saving Fish From Drowning is quite a departure for Tan, eschewing the tight-knit Chinese family dynamic for a wide ranging examination of the foibles of Americans and atrocities of the Burmese government, often exemplified through scenes of broad comedy and even broader characters. Not that there aren't flashes of the usual Tan subject matter; the opening chapters set up the life history of Bibi Chen and her family's move from China to America, a story which would have fit in well with any of Tan's previous work. To be honest, I had a hard time getting past this initial section; I had come into the book expecting a different style of novel, and instead found myself thrust into Tan's usual stomping grounds. But once I powered through Chen's life story and reached the tale of the tourists, I found a different style of novel indeed.

One thing that I enjoyed about Saving Fish was Tan's sense of humor, which is more prevalent (or, perhaps more accurately, more overstated) in this novel than in any of her earlier works; I was pleasantly surprised at how many times the book managed to make me laugh out loud. A lot of the critics of the book lambast Tan for the flatness of the main characters and the overabundance of secondary characters. Personally, I didn't have a problem with either; the entire novel is so stylized that the main characters being partial caricatures only seemed fitting, and I felt the digressions into secondary characters only fit the personality of the narrative voice of Chen. Others dislike the fact that the story is told in such a broad fashion, but again, I just accepted that as a stylistic choice and went with it. There is also some criticism about the novel's ending being anti-climactic, and that criticism I can get on board with, although it was not enough to ruin the book for me.

All in all, I enjoyed Tan's experiment; while I didn't enjoy it as much as I did her earlier works, it did keep me engaged and entertained once I got past the initial chapters. Tan fans looking for more of the same will probably be disappointed; those willing to give this novel a chance and take it for what it is, might find themselves pleasantly surprised.


Rocket said...

Don't feel obligated to read the books super fast for my sake. You might miss something important! They would just sit around on my bookshelf anyways :)

Flunky said...

I still think you should look into becoming a professional book critic. You are very knowlegeable on the topic and it works well with your style of writing. I enjoy reading these. I am looking forward to your review of "The Mount".