I was reminded last night, reading my friend Khanh Ha’s new novel, “The Demon Who Peddled Longing,” that good fiction writing is about creating a rhythmic narrative reality in which the reader loses him or herself. Derived from ordinary reality, this fictional reality becomes more vivid, heightened, than the former, every detail like a musical note resonating with emotional significance. In this way, good fiction galvanizes the essential parts of our being, awakens us to life. When you put down a good book, the world hums with fresh meaning. At least for a while, nothing is taken for granted.
I’m only 40 pages into my friend’s book. But I just read an eight-page scene revolving around the slow preparation and cooking of a snakehead fish, peddled from a merchant boat on a flooded river plain somewhere in Vietnam. The characters, a young drifter and an older fisherwoman who rescues him, are living in a rotted stilt house above the silt-dark floodwaters. The scene is slowly and meticulously rendered, and the everyday act of cooking and eating fish becomes something beautiful, revealing a mutual hunger both erotic and profound. The scene reminds me of the way Hemingway wrote about food.
A few excerpts:
“Once he glanced up and he could see her watching him through her narrowed eyes. He could feel the heat of the fire tingling on his bare torso and he’d stop occasionally to wipe sweat off his face, his chest. She lowered her head to look at the underside of the fish, where the flames were browning its skin into tiny warts and the fat-filmed skin glistened…Tamarind paste, she said, rising to her feet. From a wall shelf, she picked up the fish-sauce jar, unplugged the cork and poured it into the bowl. Watching her stir the sauce into a deep amber liquid with red flecks, the spoon going round and round with tiny clinks, his mouth watered. The fish was smoking with a thin vapor hovering over its blistering skin and the air became permeated with a dark, fatty smell. She went to the cupboard and returned with a jar filled with crushed peanuts and motioned with her head toward the wall shelves. Get the liquor, she said. He lifted one of the two jugs of liquor on the floor beneath the shelves and grabbed an empty bowl, the plain blue crockery she used for drinking. On the rim of the hearth she had spread out a large banana leaf and, as he stood over her with the jug and the bowl, she lifted the fish by the rod and the tail and brought it down onto the leaf. It sizzled and white vapor rose up from the leaf. She sank the knife into the fish’s fat side and slit it open, letting out a steaming aroma….”
And some more excerpts from later in the night:
“Before he was awake he saw himself lying on the dew-wet straw somewhere in the translucent dawn, and there was a black snake slithering through the leg of his pants and up to his crotch… He could feel her hand working feverishly, opened then closed, her wheezing coaxing her hand, small hisses between her teeth, the ripe sweet smell of rice liquor coming back again like it was part of her flesh. Then she stopped.”--Scott Neuffer, author of Scars of the New Order