Saving Fish from Drowning pulls a fast one on its readers. The novel begins with a story about how a real-life San Francisco socialite named Bibi Chen inspired author Amy Tan. Then it asks us to believe Chen, from beyond the grave, is the narrator.
Only gradually will the reader realize that Bibi Chen did not exist.
Tan remains unapologetic about this gambit. It was, after all, invented by Daniel Defoe, a founding father of the novel as a form, in Robinson Crusoe.
"Why would anyone believe me?" asks the 53-year-old novelist. "I'm a fiction writer! I make things up."
Since debuting in 1989 with The Joy Luck Club, Tan has published three other novels, two children's books and a collection of essays, and also has advised on a hit children's series, "Sagwa the Siamese Chinese Cat."
But recently, Tan began to question how faithfully people trust what is presented as true.
"I was interested in what happened when you looked at something that had the appearance of authority," she says. "Like a note to the reader -- you automatically assume it's the truth."
Unfolding in Bibi's cranky, if amused, register, the book describes a misbegotten holiday taken by 12 wealthy, art-loving San Franciscan friends to the country of Myanmar, formerly Burma.
The careful reader won't have to look hard to find a nod to Geoffrey Chaucer here.
"I started outlining the story an hour after I finished writing The Bonesetter's Daughter," says Tan, "and imagined a Canterbury Tales goes to Burma."
But the similarities end there, for Chaucer's travelers did not find themselves quite as lost in translation as Tan's Americans. Mostly rich, mostly white and entirely unfamiliar with the culture into which they have dunked themselves headfirst, they make a number of errors. The whopper of them all involves a celebrity dog trainer urinating on a sacred shrine.
Humor and Myanmar do not often go together, but Tan felt an obligation to slip readers in the back door.
"The wonderful thing about fiction is it's subversive. You can get people into a very repugnant situation through fiction, and comedy is one way to get people to let their defenses down.
"The sad thing about [Myanmar] is that some of the most absurd things are the real stuff. You have a military regime, which is called SLORC. Doesn't that sound James Bondian? It's State Law and Order Restoration Council. ... I think someone finally said, 'You know, it's not a very good name.' So they hired a Washington, D.C.-based PR firm, and revamped their image, renamed them. It was ludicrous."
Tan captures some of this absurdity by having her merry travelers get kidnapped by a group of Burmese tribesmen who believe that one of the tourists -- a teenager who reads Stephen King and performs card tricks -- is the Young White Brother, a fabled hero in tribal lore.
Harry, the aforementioned dog trainer, is left behind and helps ignite a media frenzy to rescue the kidnapped Americans. Little does he know he actually is helping the military regime spread propaganda, via a global news network called GNN.
"I wanted to play with the idea that the news makes it happen," says Tan, explaining why she felt compelled to have her trip of innocents abroad evolve into a media circus.
As a powerful Chinese-American with an enormous audience, Tan frequently is asked to speak about issues, to use her platform in the media as a way to call attention to injustices in Asia.
"During the time after Tiananmen Square, people thought I should go to China, stand on the square and denounce the Chinese government. And I just wasn't sure that would be effective," she explains. "That would be me asserting my American rights to say anything, but does it really help people who are suffering?
"So my bottom line now is: How would it help people if I do something, and how it would it hurt them?"
In the novel, the kidnapped travelers, whom Tan depicts as bumbling but basically good people, experience this dilemma firsthand when they witness some of the Myanmar government's repression.
Naturally, they become convinced they must speak out. Doing so, however, means risking the exact location of the tribesmen, who are trying to remain hidden from the government.
Tan sees this dilemma as part of life everywhere, not just in the West. The title, for instance, refers to how Buddhists allow themselves to catch and kill fish.
"They scoop up the fish and bring them to shore," explains a man in the novel to one of the tourists. "They say they are saving the fish from drowning. Unfortunately ... they do not recover."
Tan hopes her readers begin to put this country on the radar again.
"This is a country that has been largely forgotten by people since the name was changed, and it would be nice for people to remember it," she says. "[Myanmar] has some of the worst cases of human rights abuse. It has the world capital of growing heroin."
In the meantime, Tan is going to keep writing and entertaining, and finishing the opera she's working on. And, of course, she will undertake charitable endeavors.
For instance, she recently helped Dave Eggers by lending her name to an event at his 826 Valencia writing center in San Francisco. In return for her canceling plans one night to attend a gala event, Eggers sent her a list of what he would do, from cutting her grass to fetching her coffee. Tan simply asked for his first born.
"I said, if it's a boy, I don't care. If it's a girl, I want her to be Amy Tan Vida Eggers."
Tan cackles, and only then does it become clear that she's joking.
-- John Freeman
Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan Putnam, $26.95/hardcover