Amy Tan's Saving Fish From Drowning begins with a detailed story explaining how its manuscript—supposedly the psychic dictation of dead San Francisco art collector Bibi Chen—first came to light. Then it begins again with a newspaper report about 11 American tourists disappearing in Burma. Then it begins once more with Bibi's account of her life history, the scene of her death, and its aftermath. And then it begins yet again by taking on the fractured perspectives of the dozen associates Bibi was planning to take on a well-curated sightseeing tour of Burma—the self-involved, overprivileged American travelers who, with one exception, literally become lost without her. Taken as a whole, the book's layered beginning is a suitably complicated, perspective-rich opening to a story devoted to condemning simplistic assumptions. But it's also fractured, jarring, and like a significant percentage of the book, simply unnecessary.

Ultimately, Saving Fish From Drowning follows its 12 American sightseers through China and Burma, where they relentlessly misinterpret and misjudge everything around them, while Bibi's frustrated ghost observes and explains their errors for readers' benefit. Oblivious to the culture, language, and beliefs of the people they encounter, the travelers miss nuances, leap to conclusions, fail tests of empathy and discernment, and randomly disperse money or blame when they encounter problems. And as a result, they defile a shrine, make themselves catastrophically ill, fall into one misadventure after another, and eventually helpfully accommodate their own disappearance.


As the narrator, Bibi sometimes offers excuses for their behavior, but as their errors rapidly pile up into a scathing indictment of Americans abroad, the excuses wear thin. Unfortunately, so does the narrative. Tan's detailed prose style is strong and her structure is irresistible; her early-book teasers about the traveling party's fate guarantee readers will go along for the bumpy ride just to find out what happened to them, and every mistake they make along the way provokes another anticipatory flinch. But hundreds of pages of comparisons between the Americans' arrogant presumptions and the real truth become monotonous, the large cast of thinly characterized stereotypes blur together, and Bibi's beyond-the-grave harping just gets in the way. Saving Fish is intermittently a wickedly wry satire, brimming with insight about how cultures and individuals fail to connect, sometimes with harsh consequences. It's also an impressive narrative step up from Tan's previous gorgeous but increasingly samey domestic-exotic dramas, and it's impressively cynical and misanthropic, more like a Chuck Palahniuk novel than like The Joy Luck Club. But all the ambition it adds to Tan's normal strengths would come through clearer with a few subtractions: say, of half the unnecessary characters, a third of the repetitive length, and most of the gimmicks and veils.