Ghost Writing

January 2nd, 2006

Back in 1977, in the mandatory American-lit class I took as a freshman at college, we were introduced -- through Melville's perplexing story "Bartleby" -- to the concept of the "unreliable narrator." Now, in Amy Tan's mordant new novel, Saving Fish from Drowning, we meet a dead narrator: the late San Francisco socialite Bibi Chen, whose grouchy spirit recounts this picaresqe tale of innocents abroad.

Amy TanAt the start of the book, Tan (my guest on the show that airs tonight at 7:30, and will be repeated on Friday night at 10:30) explains to the reader that her fictional story is based on actual people and events; indeed, she reprints a newspaper account of a group trip to Burma organized by the real-life Chen that went forward despite a murderous attack that ended Chen's life. And as I settled into the narrative, I did have a vague sense that I'd read about all this stuff somewhere, several years ago. So I went and Googled Bibi Chen -- and learned that she never existed! Not since the Coen brothers' great movie Fargo (which also claimed to be based on a true story) had I been so deliberately deceived by a wily storyteller. Why, I wondered, had Tan gone out of her way to mess with my head?

As I progressed into Saving Fish from Drowning, I began to feel the power behind her game-playing: in having this not-really-true story be told by the ghost of a not-really-actual person, she's unsettling readers to the point that we can truly empathize with her unsettled protagonists -- a group of Chen's acquaintances whose Western hubris ill-equips them to deal with desperate people from very different cultures. In keeping us off-balance, Tan also seems keen on evoking the dream-like, often comically inaccurate impressions that we tend to have of the world beyond our borders. Even the proper name for the country where most of the book is set -- Burma? Myanmar? -- is probably unclear to those of us who haven't followed events there in any great detail.

"Only the Dead Know Brooklyn," advised Thomas Wolfe, in another story I was fortunately assigned in that freshman lit class. As Amy Tan joined me on the comfy red studio couch nearly three decades later, I couldn't wait to ask her whether only the dead know Burma.

Entry Filed under: tv episodes

39 Comments

  • 1. cree waters  |  January 6th, 2006 at 11:47 pm

    josh, when i heard your guest was amy tam tonight i was glad, for she is one of my favorite writers, but i must tell you i was upset with your interview, for it was not an interview, when you talked more then amy tam, i was interested in her words, not yours, please rethink you interview styles, amy certainly knows more about her novel then you, thus is much more interesting, thanks for listening, cree

  • 2. Josh Kornbluth  |  January 7th, 2006 at 8:46 am

    Excellent point, Cree — I’m still learning! Thanks so much for your comment.

  • 3. deborah mcgee  |  March 8th, 2006 at 6:11 am

    I just finished Amy’s book and googled to learn more about Bibi Chen. I was disappointed to learn that she never existed. I was fascinated by the concept which I admit kept me turning the pages of Amy’s book. I feel like Oprah…duped. Thanks…DJ McGee

  • 4. Josh Kornbluth  |  March 13th, 2006 at 4:18 pm

    Hey, Deborah — I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who was “duped”!

  • 5. Thu  |  March 29th, 2006 at 1:17 pm

    I’m reading the book right now and I thought I’d google some of the names from the book…turns out the only one that comes up was Bibi’s and it ended me up in your blog. I was a bit disappointed that she wasn’t a real person.

  • 6. Sylvie Sevigny  |  April 6th, 2006 at 10:23 am

    On the publication page from G.P. Putnam’s Sons you will notice at the very bottom the words ” This is a work of fiction……”.
    This said, I found the book to be a great read, informative and also fun. For some reason I always turn to the publication page to check if what Iam reading is fiction, part fiction. I feel the concept Amy Tan employed adds to her book. I thoroughly enjoyed “Saving Fish from Water”
    Sylvie Sevigny

  • 7. K Cashman  |  July 30th, 2006 at 5:44 pm

    All ye so quick to criticize should check your facts before you throw stones… Cree, her last name is Tan not Tam. Sevigny that book title is “Saving Fish from Drowning”
    I too googled Bibi Chen and was bummed to find that she was fictional. However, I thought the book wonderfully funny and yet serious – intelligent and witty.

  • 8. Lindsay Kuntz  |  August 15th, 2006 at 12:00 am

    After reading half of the book, I too googled. The only reason I have put up with the insufferable pretension of Bibi Chen is because I thought she was dead!

  • 9. Sher Strobros  |  September 4th, 2006 at 10:52 am

    I wonder what made Lindsay find Bibi so “insufferable?” I thought she was a great narrator, as was the story, though I too was disappointed that Bibi wasn’t real… but, hey– that only proves what a great writer Tan is! Fortunately for me, I waited till I finsihed the book before I did a search on the non-existant Chen. I ‘m a big fan of Tan’s and just happened to catch her on another show, and was also bummed that that interviewer (not you, Josh) also chose to not allow Amy to talk. (Why are interviewers so in love with their own voice, and what they think is their profound wit and knowledge of their guest/topic???) Oh well! I think this book woukd make a great movie! I’m already looking forward to the next Tan novel!
    .
    Sher

  • 10. Jane  |  September 7th, 2006 at 11:41 pm

    I’m googling Bibi Chen and like all others reading or have read Amy Tan’s “Saving Fish from Drowning,” the name in question is fiction…and I landed in your blog!

    Tan’s novels are always a great read!

  • 11. Lane  |  October 10th, 2006 at 12:52 pm

    I’ve just FINALLY finished this book….the ONLY reason why I put up with the horrible story-telling and lethargic “turn of events” was because I thought that it was based on a true story. I was an Amy Tan fan before reading this…now, I doubt I’ll ever buy another one of her novels. I thought it was horrible the whole way through…and now to find that the entire thing was fiction (which I began to infer once the Tribe mentioned their desires of having their own reality show). It took me almost a year to finish this book, in which I read about 50 books between page 1 and page 4-something.

  • 12. Jenny  |  October 11th, 2006 at 6:15 am

    I googled Bibi Chen after reading the book and confirmed my hunch that she is just a fictional character. I was almost taken in by the foreword of Amy Tan and her thanking Moffet and Roxanne at the end. But Tan knows how to seamlessly wove fact and fiction together that readers’s curiosity is aroused.
    I admit I was not wiser 10 years ago when reading The Bridges of Madison Country. I was so moved by the book that I went to my university’s archive of National Geographics to look for Robert Kincaid’s name in their list of contributing photographers. Ha! I didn’t google it at that time…..but going back to Tan, it was an enjoyable book and I want to google some more items just to see what is fact and fiction in it. Cheers!

  • 13. LaVerne Adams  |  October 29th, 2006 at 11:53 pm

    Ha! I’m reassured to find I’m not the only reader who “believed in” Bibi Chen. But this is truly a great novel; I enjoyed the change from Tan’s former style. Seems she has ventured into a bit of Magic Realism here.

  • 14. Heidi  |  November 2nd, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    I think that the whole point of the book was to get us thinking. I googled Bibi Chen and Burma to see if the missing people actually existed and because halfway through I was getting worried that they all perished (I am halfway through right now). You know what I found myself doing was researching Burma. A part of the world I had not a lot of exposure with. I think that Amy would be happy with that, shedding light on a place that obviously needs it. I was dubious about it being true when she was describing things so WELL and saying she had never been there. Does anyone know if there really is a paranormal museum in NY?

  • 15. Helen Kaye  |  November 5th, 2006 at 9:39 pm

    I was initially taken in by Tan’s foreword, but not too far into the book I realized that it was part of the fiction. That said, I wouldn’t be here were it not for a niggling “I wonder”.
    I’m not a huge Tan fan but in her previous books there has been a lightness of touch and a correspondingly dancing humor that is missing here. Part satire, part polemic, this book takes itself too seriously and reading it becomes laborious thereby.

  • 16. Q.Grant  |  December 1st, 2006 at 10:41 am

    I too was curious about Bibi Chen’s life and the mystery surrounding her and her friend’s deaths. I Googled her found nothing regarding her existence on earth and discovered that she is indeed a work of fiction. I’m dissappointed to learn that she only exists in Saving Fish Fom Drowning. I haven’t read a Amy Tan novel since the Joy Luck Club And I’m not dissappointed in this one either. I’m 1/4 way through and I find it very entertaining and dismally amusing.
    Amy Chen is a multi-faceted writer who knows how to keep us on our toes.

  • 17. Jo  |  January 18th, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    I just started the book yesterday. I have read a lot about near death experiences and believe that our spirits live on and so was a bit curious about the automatic writing. Although she says its fiction up front, I had doubts about what was true and what was fiction. I found out there is a Society for Psychical Research in New York but when I googled Amy Tan came up with this site. I’m glad to know it is all fiction, but as a reader of a lot of non-fiction I think the author should have been more clear that the entire book and its characters are fictional. I would have been upset to find this out after reading further.

  • 18. Anne Elisa Hanson  |  January 26th, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    I am on page 65 of the book, and was extremely curious about Bibi Chen, so I find myself googling her and here I am! I think Amy Tan is a brilliant writer. This is the 4th book of hers I’ve read (am reading) and even though I still have to finish the book knowing that it is fiction, I am sure I will still love it. I think that the sheer fact that we all felt the need to find out more about this character ot the so- called events, speaks volumes about Chen’s writing ability. If we hadn’t been invested in the character, we wouldn’t have wanted to know more. Well, btter get back to the book!

  • 19. Michelle  |  January 30th, 2007 at 5:23 pm

    I too, wanted to know more about Bibi Chen. I have read only the introduction…can’t wait to read more.

  • 20. kz  |  February 22nd, 2007 at 10:59 am

    I am currently on page 250- something of this book. I guess I should have waited to finish the book before reading these comments as there were a few spoilers for me. I googled 11 missing tourists Burma– ha! nothing! I also thought that this was based on some factual events. I will say that the beginning was so detail oriented and long that after I got into the book, I should have gone back to read the beginning again. I’m hooked now and am having a hard time putting it down! I love Amy Tan, have read all of her fiction works and enjoyed them.

  • 21. Amy  |  February 23rd, 2007 at 9:32 pm

    I am a googler for Bibi Chen tonight, as I am on page 339 of Saving Fish from Drowning, a visitor to Myanmar, having stayed on Inle Lake in a floating hotel listening to someone singing all night long, eating Shan cusine, visiting remote markets via boat —just like Tan describes in her book! WOW. I too was duped; But instead of annoyance, I am smiling. What a great researcher and modern storyteller. Brava! I hope other readers will be inspired to learn more about this forgotten country. I know that Tan’s story has inspire me to do so. Now, off to finish the book!
    And by the way,google Aung San Suu Kyi, she’s for real.

  • 22. Denise  |  March 10th, 2007 at 5:26 pm

    And so was Karen Lundegaard as a medium.

  • 23. SRW  |  March 11th, 2007 at 6:23 pm

    The problem with this book is that it glorifies Myanmar.
    I have travelled extensively in the country. It is not clear that the
    author has but as it is obvious since the first page that
    this is fiction maybe she lives there.

  • 24. DEB  |  April 3rd, 2007 at 5:28 pm

    What is it about us people that love to do research and try to find out the underlying facts? I usually read murder, mystery, and mayhem. I picked this book up for $1 at a second-hand store and I was looking forward to my new adventure. I started researching different things I pulled out of the book, and now I am at your blog. I still like the book, but I was feeling a little duped too. I have continued my research and learned more about some of the actual facts of Burma/Myanmar. I like it and want to encourage others to read it. Why not? Life is too short and we all enjoy a little adventure.

  • 25. John  |  April 4th, 2007 at 9:38 pm

    I am two thirds through the book and bought it in Thailand having just spent a month in Myanmar. I too was duped and feel quite disappointed, but it just shows what a fantastic author she is. Unfortunately some bits are true. These are the unimaginable atrocities that SLORC (now called SPDC) are carrying out on their own people. There are between 800000 and one million Karen refugees living on the Thai side of their border and my brother has worked in the camps. There is a long-term ethnic cleansing going on in Myanmar that gets very publicity and it is time that the west helped Aung San Suu Kyi take her legitimate place as leader of the country as the people there are too impoverished, scared and oppressed to take any action.

  • 26. Kathie  |  April 16th, 2007 at 9:32 pm

    I was duped as well, obviously so or I would not be at this site! I am glad I finished the book before googling. I intend to research Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi so it won’t be a total loss as far as facts, but I still think Amy Tan is an awsome weaver of tales!

  • 27. Lee  |  April 23rd, 2007 at 10:07 pm

    I also just finished “Saving Fish..” and googled our beloved Bibi. I assumed through the whole book that she was ficticious, but wanted to make sure. I think that one of Tan’s main themes in the book is that things that people do to benefit others often have the desired effect, but unexpected consequences as well. Take the book’s final example of this: (SPOILER ALERT) Bibi’s cousin finds and sends to Bibi her mother’s hair comb knowing that Bibi would want to have it. This has its desired effect as it brings Bibi joy and peace, but is also the instrument of her death. Who could have seen that coming?!? The cousin would have never thought “I had better not send this to Bibi because she might fall on it and die.”

  • 28. Lee  |  April 23rd, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    I guess I am too long-winded!!! I am not sure if Tan’s point is that we should always try to help others because there is no way to anticipate all of the consequences, or that we should be reluctant to help those in need since things could go terribly wrong. I really enjoyed reading the book, but now that I am through with it I feel rather cold toward it. Something about the way it ended seems a bit unsatisfying. Or perhaps that is another of Tan’s points, that there is not ever an end for things will continue to go on no matter what happens….

  • 29. Mary  |  June 8th, 2007 at 5:03 am

    Yeah, it was too fantastic to be true. But what about Karen Lundegaard? Was she also a fictional character? I see lots of references to a person by this name on Google. Is she alive or dead, or a product of Tan’s prolific imagination? I see a Google claim that her ex husband learns of his wife’s death by reading Amy Tan’s novel. Whoa!

  • 30. Fran  |  July 7th, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    I’ve enjoyed Amy Tan’s previous books and picked up Saving Fish from Drowning today for a light summer read. To get some background on Burma and on the events cited by Tan in the front matter, I hit Google looking first for Aung San Suu Kyi, and then Karen Lundegaard. Tan says Lundegaard died in October 2003, but a journalist who may or may not be the same person appears still to be writing – formerly WSJ, now in Minnesota.

  • 31. Susan  |  October 8th, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    There was a medium in Berkeley named Dr. Karen Lundegaard, who wrote a book titled “Identifying Spirit Photos”, as listed at http://www.spirithistory.com. According to her ex-husband, Gregory Allen Butler, who has written an article mentioned at Holistic-personal-development.com, he found out Karen had died when he read Amy Tan’s book. Now I wonder whether Karen really has died. Her web site is defunct [Karenlundegaard.com]

  • 32. Ryan  |  November 10th, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    Karen Lundegaard did pass away in October, 2003 of cancer. She is not the same person as the WSJ journalist. Karen was a great medium and a wonderful person.

  • 33. Shelley  |  November 26th, 2007 at 6:40 am

    I knew Karen Lundegaard and she was indeed a medium who lived and worked in Berkeley.

  • 34. Alec Bash  |  December 19th, 2007 at 11:00 pm

    Karen Lundergaard was my long-time friend and classmate from high school, an inspiration and help to many, and she passed out of this life on October 3, 2003.

  • 35. Tara  |  February 2nd, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    I loved this novel! I’m a big fan. But I do feel duped that Bibi Chen is not a real person. Like others, I Googled the name and ended up here. But I was also duped by Saturday (by Ian Ian McEwan) and its “real” case.

    Oddly (and I can’t explain this) the constant deception in television series/DVD(LOST comes to mind) doesn’t bother me as much!

  • 36. Chris  |  February 21st, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    I enjoyed this book. I had to double check the publication page twice. She can spin a good tale. I find it interesting that the Medium is a real person and that some of Bibi friends are listed in the acknowledgements in the back of the book.

  • 37. John Pilon  |  February 25th, 2008 at 7:21 am

    As a friend of Dr. Karen Lundegaard, eminent intuitive who passed as a result of breast cancer on October 3, 2003 I find it amazing that everyone who has posted a comment decrying the fact that Bibi Chen did not exist cites as their main source “Google” for this truth.
    Karen received messages from spirit and just because Google as a source of information never heard of Bibi Chen does not mean that Bibi did not exist. All that it means is that Bibi is not in Google’s database.
    Anyone who received a reading from Karen was provided a truly wonderful exchange between themselves and their loved ones as Karen was a caring, sensitive person both while here in the physical world and now from where she resides in spirit with Bibi.
    Just because you’ve never heard or seen an angel doesn’t mean they don’t exist (even if they are in Google’s database).

  • 38. Frances  |  April 28th, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    Oh, dear. Me too! I see that I have inadvertently found myself in a long line of Bibi Chen hunters who ends up – right here with you Josh and feeling a bit silly to have been such a sucker! Oh well, the second half of the read will be from a vastly different perspective. Excellent book despite all.

  • 39. roung  |  May 16th, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    I am too duped.

    This is a novel starting from the “The note to the reader”. It says clearly on the cover that “A NOVEL”.

    Good blend of life and death, oriental and western, known and unknown.

    It costs me $10 to take me away from the no so happy reality for three days. Worth it.


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