Saving Fish from Drowning

Saving Fish from Drowning

3.3 76
by Amy Tan
     
 

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A provocative new novel from the bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter's Daughter

On an ill-fated art expedition into the southern Shan state of Burma, eleven Americans leave their Floating Island Resort for a Christmas-morning tour-and disappear. Through twists of fate, curses, and just plain human errorSee more details below

Overview

A provocative new novel from the bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter's Daughter

On an ill-fated art expedition into the southern Shan state of Burma, eleven Americans leave their Floating Island Resort for a Christmas-morning tour-and disappear. Through twists of fate, curses, and just plain human error, they find themselves deep in the jungle, where they encounter a tribe awaiting the return of the leader and the mythical book of wisdom that will protect them from the ravages and destruction of the Myanmar military regime.

Saving Fish from Drowning seduces the reader with a fagade of Buddhist illusions, magician's tricks, and light comedy, even as the absurd and picaresque spiral into a gripping morality tale about the consequences of intentions-both good and bad-and about the shared responsibility that individuals must accept for the actions of others. 

A pious man explained to his followers: "It is evil to take lives and noble to save them. Each day I pledge to save a hundred lives. I drop my net in the lake and scoop out a hundred fishes. I place the fishes on the bank, where they flop and twirl. 'Don't be scared,' I tell those fishes. 'I am saving you from drowning.' Soon enough, the fishes grow calm and lie still. Yet, sad to say, I am always too late. The fishes expire. And because it is evil to waste anything, I take those dead fishes to market and I sell them for a good price. With the money I receive, I buy more nets so I can save more fishes."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
When Amy Tan walks into a bookstore and reads from her work, the audience is enthralled by her very presence. But an audio recording is an art form and a performance, not an author appearance. Some authors excel as performers-for example, Simon Brett performs his Murder in the Museum with aplomb -but Tan is not gifted with an actor's range. Alone in a studio, Tan does not do justice to her own work. Words melt when Tan drops her voice at the end of sentences-and even in the middle. It sounds as if she is rocking back and forth in front of the microphone, or perhaps looking down and away from the mike to study the text. She is also unable to produce different voices for her characters. The narrator who finds Bibi Chen's writings (via a psychic) sounds exactly like Bibi herself. The comments of Bibi's ghost on the ill-fated trip of several of her friends in China and Myanmar are clearly meant to be humorous, but this, too, doesn't come across in Bibi's voice. As a writer, Tan has a well-deserved following. Hopefully, she will leave future recordings to someone who can give her novels the breadth they deserve. Simultaneous release with the Putnam hardcover (Reviews, Aug. 29). (Dec.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
With each successive novel, Tan gets further away from the autobiographical element of her early work. Unfortunately, the characters with whom she replaces friends and ancestors end up shallow and unbelievable. That's especially true in this exasperating saga, where 12 fictional American tourists missing in Burma spar, bond, and have exhibitionist love affairs with all the delicacy of characters in a soap opera. The first-person narration, by the ghost of a Chinese American socialite who planned to lead this art and culture expedition, adds to the listener's frustration, as does the ghost's constant reference to "my friends." While Tan's seriocomic look at American tourists interacting with primitive culture rings true and has one laughing out loud at times, the same effect could have been achieved in a much tighter novel. Even elements that might have heightened awareness and suspense end up suffocated by the idiosyncrasies of characters we'd just as soon forget. Everything has to be neatly ordered, including nearly an hour of tying things up, telling what every character goes on to do with his or her life. The most valuable element here is that the audiobook is read by the author, although poorly mastered discs, with the volume rising and falling, make it difficult to listen on a long car trip.-Rochelle Ratner, formerly with Soho Weekly News, New York Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Fish is based on the real-life disappearance of 12 American tourists in Myanmar. The narrator is Bibi Chen, dealer in Chinese antiquities, who had arranged an art-oriented tour for her friends. When she dies under mysterious circumstances, the others decide to proceed, saying that Bibi will join them "in spirit"-an invitation she accepts. Mostly well-meaning, but ignorant and naive, the group lands in one hilarious situation after another due to cultural misunderstandings. On a lake outing, they are kidnapped and taken to a hidden village where a rebel tribe waits for the Younger White Brother, who will make them invisible and bullet-proof and enable them to recover their land. They believe that they've found him in 15-year-old Rupert, an amateur magician. The tour group consists of 10 adults and 2 adolescents, some pillars of the community and some decidedly not, but all rich, intelligent, and spoiled. Bibi, feisty and opinionated, uncovers their fears, desires, and motives, and the shades of truth in their words. As the novel progresses, they become more human and less stereotypical, changing as a result of their experiences. Although Tan also satirizes the tourist industry, American Buddhism, and reality TV, her focus is on the American belief that everyone everywhere plays by the same rules. An extremely funny novel with serious undercurrents.-Sandy Freund, Richard Byrd Library, Fairfax County, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Tan's ambitious fifth novel is a ghost's story (though not a ghost story), about an American tourist party's ordeal in the Southeast Asian jungles of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Its narrator is Bibi Chen (whose relation to the story's complex provenance is discussed in a brief prefatory note): a 60-ish California art collector/dealer and sometime travel guide, whose unexplained violent death limits her to joining the members of an American art tour "in spirit" only. She's a major presence, however, among such varied traveling companions as Chinese-American matron Marlena Chu and her preadolescent daughter Esme; biologist Roxanne Scarangello and her younger husband Dwight Massey (a behavioral psychologist); a florist who produces specially bred tropical plants and his teenaged son, an ardently liberal rich girl and her sexy lover, a gay designer pressed into service as de facto tour master, and several others-the most interesting of whom is TV celebrity dog-trainer Harry Bailley (who has eyes for Marlena, and whose name slyly alludes to that earlier portrayal of motley travelers who discover one another's unbuttoned humanity: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales). The strength here is Tan's clever plot, which takes off when 11 of the dozen tourists (sans Harry, who's ill) enter the jungle, cross a rope bridge that subsequently collapses and find themselves stranded among a "renegade ethnic tribe" who mistake 15-year-old Rupert Moffett for a "god" capable of rendering them invisible to Myanmar's brutal military government. Their disappearance becomes an international cause celebre, cultural misunderstandings entangle and multiply, and some fancy narrative footwork brings the tale to a richly ironicconclusion. Alas, Tan (The Bonesetter's Daughter, 2001, etc.) offers much more-ongoing discursive commentary from Bibi's post-mortem perspective, and scads of historical and ethnographic detail about Burma's storied past and Myanmar's savage present. The author's research ultimately smothers her story and characters. A pity, because this vividly imagined tale might very well have been her best yet.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781440627606
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/18/2005
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
496
Sales rank:
118,729
File size:
1 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Saving Fish from Drowning


By Amy Tan

G. P. Putnam's Sons

Copyright © 2005 G. P. Putnam's Sons
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-399-15301-2


Chapter One

A Brief History of My Shortened Life

It was not my fault. If only the group had followed my original itinerary without changing it hither, thither, and yon, this debacle would never have happened. But such was not the case, and there you have it, I regret to say.

"Following the Buddha's Footsteps" is what I named the expedition. It was to have begun in the southwestern corner of China, in Yunnan Province, with vistas of the Himalayas and perpetual spring flowers, and then to have continued south on the famed Burma Road. This would allow us to trace the marvelous influence of various religious cultures on Buddhist art over a thousand years and a thousand miles-a fabulous journey into the past. As if that were not enough appeal, I would be both tour leader and personal docent, making the expedition a truly value-added opportunity. But in the wee hours of December 2nd, and just fourteen days before we were to leave on our expedition, a hideous thing happened ... I died. There. I've finally said it, as unbelievable as it sounds. I can still see the tragic headline: "Socialite Butchered in Cult Slaying."

The article was quite long: two columns on the left-hand side of the front page, with a color photo of me covered with an antique textile, an exquisite one utterly ruined for future sale.

The report was a terrible thing to read: "The body of Bibi Chen, 63, retail maven, socialite, and board member of the Asian Art Museum, was found yesterday in the display window of her Union Square store, The Immortals, famed for its chinoiserie...." That odious word-"chinoiserie"-so belittling in a precious way. The article continued with a rather nebulous description of the weapon: a small, rakelike object that had severed my throat, and a rope tightened around my neck, suggesting that someone had tried to strangle me after stabbing had failed. The door had been forced open, and bloody footprints of size-twelve men's shoes led from the platform where I had died, then out the door, and down the street. Next to my body lay jewelry and broken figurines. According to one source, there was a paper with writing from a Satanic cult bragging that it had struck again.

Two days later, there was another story, only shorter and with no photo: "New Clues in Arts Patron's Death." A police spokesman explained that they had never called it a cult slaying. The detective had noted "a paper," meaning a newspaper tabloid, and when asked by reporters what the paper said, he gave the tabloid's headline: "Satanic Cult Vows to Kill Again." The spokesman went on to say that more evidence had been found and an arrest had been made. A police dog tracked the trail left by my blood. What is invisible to the human eye, the spokesman said, still contains "scent molecules that highly trained dogs can detect for as long as a week or so after the event." (My death was an event?) The trail took them to an alleyway, where they found bloodstained slacks stuffed in a shopping cart filled with trash. A short distance from there, they found a tent fashioned out of blue tarp and cardboard. They arrested the occupant, a homeless man, who was wearing the shoes that had left the telltale imprints. The suspect had no criminal record but a history of psychiatric problems. Case solved.

Or maybe not. Right after my friends were lost in Burma, the newspaper changed its mind again: "Shopkeeper's Death Ruled Freak Accident."

No reason, no purpose, no one to blame, just "freak," this ugly word next to my name forever. And why was I demoted to "shopkeeper"? The story further noted that DNA analysis of the man's skin particles and those on both the blood- spattered trousers and the shoes confirmed that the man was no longer a suspect. So who had entered my gallery and left the prints? Wasn't it an obvious case of crime? Who, exactly, caused this freak accident? Yet there was no mention of a further investigation, shame on them. In the same article, the reporter noted "an odd coincidence," namely that "Bibi Chen had organized the Burma Road trip, in which eleven people went on a journey to view Buddhist art and disappeared." You see how they pointed the shaking finger of blame? They certainly implied it, through slippery association with what could not be adequately explained, as if I had created a trip that was doomed from the start. Pure nonsense.

The worst part about all of this is that I don't remember how I died. In those last moments, what was I doing? Whom did I see wielding the instrument of death? Was it painful? Perhaps it was so awful that I blocked it from my memory. It's human nature to do that. And am I not still human, even if I'm dead?

The autopsy concluded that I was not strangled but had drowned in my own blood. It was ghastly to hear. So far none of this information has been of any use whatsoever. A little rake in my throat, a rope around my neck-this was an accident? You'd have to be brainless to think so, as more than a few evidently were.

At the postmortem, photos were taken, especially of the awful part of my neck. My body was tucked into a metal drawer for future study. There I lay for several days, and then samples of me were removed-a swab of this, a sliver of that, hair follicles, blood, and gastric juices. Then two more days went by, because the chief medical examiner went on vacation in Maui, and since I was an illustrious person, of particular renown in the art world-and no, not just the retail community, as the San Francisco Chronicle suggested-he wanted to see me personally, as did esteemed people in the professions of crime and forensic medicine. They dropped by on their lunch hour to make ghoulish guesses as to what had happened to cause my premature demise. For days, they slid me in, they slid me out, and said brutish things about the contents of my stomach, the integrity of the vessels in my brain, my personal habits, and past records of my health, some being rather indelicate matters one would rather not hear discussed so openly among strangers eating their sack lunches.

In that refrigerated land, I thought I had fallen into the underworld, truly I did. The most dejected people were there-an angry woman who had dashed across Van Ness Avenue to scare her boyfriend, a young man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and changed his mind halfway down, an alcoholic war vet who had passed out on a nude beach. Tragedies, mortal embarrassments, unhappy endings, all of them. But why was I there?

I was stuck in these thoughts, unable to leave my breathless body, until I realized that my breath was not gone but surrounding me, buoying me upward. It was quite amazing, really-every single breath, the sustenance I took and expelled out of both habit and effort over sixty-three years had accumulated like a savings account. And everyone else's as well, it seemed, inhalations of hopes, exhalations of disappointment. Anger, love, pleasure, hate-they were all there, the bursts, puffs, sighs, and screams. The air I had breathed, I now knew, was composed not of gases but of the density and perfume of emotions. The body had been merely a filter, a censor. I knew this at once, without question, and I found myself released, free to feel and do whatever I pleased. That was the advantage of being dead: no fear of future consequences. Or so I thought.

When the funeral finally happened on December 11th, it was nearly ten days after I died, and without preservation I would have been compost. Nonetheless, many came to see and mourn me. A modest guess would be, oh, eight hundred, though I am not strictly counting. To begin, there was my Yorkshire terrier, Poochini, in the front row, prostrate, head over paws, sighing through the numerous eulogies. Beside him was my good friend Harry Bailley, giving him the occasional piece of desiccated liver. Harry had offered to adopt Poochini, and my executor readily agreed, since Harry is, as everyone knows, that famous British dog trainer on television. Perhaps you've seen his show-The Fido Files? Number-one ratings, and many, many Emmy Awards. Lucky little Poochini.

And the mayor came-did I mention?-and stayed at least ten minutes, which may not sound long, but he goes to many places in a day and spends far less time at most. The board members and staff of the Asian Art Museum also came to pay respects, nearly all of them, as did the docents I trained, years' and years' worth, plus the people who had signed up for the Burma Road trip. There were also my three tenants-the troublesome one, as well-and my darling repeat customers and the daily browsers, plus Roger, my FedEx man; Thieu, my Vietnamese manicurist; Luc, my gay haircolorist; Bobo, my gay Brazilian housekeeper; and most surprising to say, Najib, the Lebanese grocer from my corner market on Russian Hill, who called me "dearie" for twenty-seven years but never gave me a discount, not even when the fruit had gone overripe. By the way, I am not mentioning people in any order of importance. This is simply how it is coming to me.

Now that I think of it, I would estimate that more than eight hundred people were there. The auditorium at the de Young Museum was crowded beyond belief, and hundreds spilled into the halls, where closed-circuit television monitors beamed the unhappy proceedings. It was a Monday morning, when the museum was usually closed, but a number of out-of-towners on Tea Garden Drive saw the funeral as a fine opportunity to sneak into the current exhibit, Silk Road Treasures from the Aurel Stein Expeditions, a testimony, in my opinion, to British Imperial plundering at the height of cupidity. When guards turned the interlopers away from the exhibits, they wandered over to my funeral fete, morbidly lured by copies of various obituaries that lay next to the guest book. Most of the papers gave the same hodgepodge of facts: "Born in Shanghai ... Fled China with her family as a young girl in 1949 ... An alumna of Mills College and guest lecturer there, in art history ... Proprietor of The Immortals ... Board member of many organizations ..." Then came a long list of worthy causes for which I was described as a devoted and generous donor: this league and that society, for Asian seniors and Chinese orphans, for the poor, the ill, and the disabled, for the abused, the illiterate, the hungry, and the mentally ill. There was an account of my delight in the arts and the substantial amounts I had given to fund artist colonies, the Youth Orchestra with the San Francisco Symphony, and the Asian Art Museum-the major recipient of my lagniappes and largesse, before and after death-which enthusiastically offered the unusual venue for my funeral, the de Young, in which the Asian was housed.

Reading the roster of my achievements, I should have been bursting with pride. Instead, it struck me as nonsensical. I heard a roar of voices coming from every bit of chatter from every dinner, luncheon, and gala I had ever attended. I saw a blur of names in thick, glossy programs, my own displayed in "Archangels," below those in the fewer-numbered and more favored "Inner Sanctum," to which that Yang boy, the Stanford dropout, always seemed to belong. Nothing filled me with the satisfaction I believed I would have at the end of my life. I could not say to myself: "That is where I was most special, where I was most important, and that is enough for a lifetime." I felt like a rich vagabond who had passed through the world, paving my way with gold fairy dust, then realizing too late that the path disintegrated as soon as I passed over it.

As to whom I had left behind, the obituary said, "There are no survivors," which is what is said of airplane crashes. And it was sadly true, all my family was gone-my father, of a heart attack; one brother, of alcoholic cirrhosis, although I was not supposed to mention that; the other brother a victim of a road-rage accident; and my mother, who passed from life before I could know her. I don't count my stepmother, Sweet Ma, who is still alive, but the less said about her the better.

The choice of an open-casket ceremony was my fault, the result of an unfortunate aside I had made to a group of friends at a tea-tasting party I had hosted at my gallery. You see, I had recently received a ship's container of fantastic items that I had found in the countryside of Hubei Province. Among them was a two- hundred-year-old lacquered coffin of paulownia wood made by a eunuch singer who had performed in palace theatricals. In death, most eunuchs, except those in the upper echelons of service, were given only the most perfunctory of burials, without ceremony, since their mutilated bodies were not fit to appear before spirit tablets in the temples. In yesteryears, people rich and poor prepared for the netherworld by making their coffins long before they ceased to hear the cock crowing the new day, and the fact that this eunuch was allowed to make such a grand coffin suggested that he was someone's pet-the prettier boys often were. Alas, this adored eunuch drowned while fishing along the Yangtze, and his body went sailing without a boat, swept away to oblivion. The eunuch's parents, in Longgang Township, to whom his possessions had been sent, faithfully kept the coffin in a shed, in hopes that their son's wayward corpse would one day return. The subsequent generations of this family grew impoverished by a combination of drought, extortion, and too many gifts to opera singers, all of which led to their losing face and their property. Years went by, and the new landowners would not go near the shed with the coffin, which was reputed to be haunted by a vampire eunuch. Derelict with neglect, the shed was covered with the dirt of winds, the mud of floods, and the dust of time.

Then, when a newly rich farmer started construction of a miniature golf course to adjoin his family's two-story Swiss-style villa, the shed was unearthed. Amazingly, the coffin had only superficial rot and not much cracking from shrinkage; such is the quality of paulownia, which, though lightweight, is more durable than many harder woods. The exterior had more than fifty coats of black lacquer, as did its short four-legged stand. Beneath the grime, one could see that the lacquer bore whimsically painted carvings of sprites and gods and mythical beasts, as well as other magical motifs, and these were continued on the interior lid of the coffin as well. My favorite detail was a playful Tibetan spaniel on the portion of the lid that would have been opposite the corpse's face. Having been protected from sunlight, the interior art on the lid was still exquisitely colored against the black lacquer. Neat bundles of paper lined the bottom, and I determined them to be a short history of the intended tenant of the coffin and the same man's unpublished poems, tributes to nature, beauty, and-most intriguing-romantic love for a lady from her youth through premature death. Well, I presume it was a lady, though one never knows with some Chinese names, does one? The coffin contained two other objects: a smaller lacquer urn with the name of the eunuch's dog, the Tibetan spaniel, and a small ivory-rimmed box in which three calcified peas rattled about, said to be the eunuch's manhood and its two accompaniments.

I could immediately see the coffin was both a millstone and a treasure. I had a few clients-people in the film industry-who might have liked this sort of odd decorative piece, particularly if it still held the petrified peas. But the proportions were awkward. The top extended beyond the length of the coffin like the duck-billed prow of a ship. And it was monstrously heavy.

I asked the farmer to name his price, and he spit out a number that was a tenth of what I was mentally willing to pay. "Ridiculous," I said, and started to leave. "Hey, hey, hey!" he shouted, and I turned back and uttered a sum that was one-third his initial offer. He doubled that, and I retorted that if he was so enamored of a dead man's house, he should keep it. I then split the difference and said I wanted the infernal box only to store some surplus items I had bought, after which I would chop up the coffin for firewood. "It has lots of room for storage," the farmer boasted, and upped the ante a wee bit. I heaved the biggest sigh I could muster, then countered that he should make arrangements for his men to deliver it to Wuhan harbor for shipment with the rest of my brilliant bargains. Done! Voila tout!

Back in San Francisco, once the coffin arrived, I put it in the back room of my shop and did indeed use it to store antique textiles woven by Hmong, Karen, and Lawa hill tribes. Soon after, I had guests over for the tea-tasting. We were sampling different pu-erh tuo cha-which is, by the way, the only tea that improves over time; anything else, after six months, you may as well use for kitty-cat litter. With the fifth tasting round, we had come to the gold standard of aged teas, a twenty-year-old vintage of the aptly named "camel breath" variety, which is especially pungent but excellent for lowering cholesterol and extending the life span. "But should I die sooner than later," I jokingly said, "then this"-and I patted the enormous funerary box-"this magnificent vessel to the afterworld, the Cadillac of coffins, is what I wish to be buried in, and with the top raised at my funeral so that all can admire the interior artistry as well...."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan Copyright © 2005 by G. P. Putnam's Sons. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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