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.
At 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.
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