OCTOBER 18, 2017
PARTWAY THROUGH Rachel Khong’s debut novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, the narrator, Ruth, asks her father to tell the story of how he met her mother. It’s one she’s heard countless times before, the great origin story. This time, however, the details do not add up:
“And didn’t you go to a Mexican restaurant after that?” I try to prompt.
“It was Ethiopian.” He frowns.
“Didn’t you eat tortilla chips?” I’m persisting.
“That can’t be right,” he says, with this expression, as though he’s hurt that I don’t trust his details.
Ruth realizes her father, Howard, who has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, is actually telling the story of how he met the woman he had an affair with. This scene sets the tone for Goodbye, Vitamin, a story in which desires and projections bump up uncomfortably and often comically close with the truth. If things get a little awkward, that’s partially because Howard’s disease has capsized any remaining shreds of social decorum. We are at the mercy of Howard and this disease, in all of its illogic and hilarity.
Thirty-year-old Ruth, recently dumped by her fiancé Joel, quits her job and moves back in with her family to take care of her father, a history professor whose recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis has begun to take a perceptible toll on his memory, and forced him into retirement. Listless and heartbroken, Ruth spends her days in a kind of latent adolescent haze, driving around the old neighborhoods of her childhood and getting drunk at strangers’ parties. The book is almost episodic, coming out in narrative spurts, like the blips of cognitive clarity that Howard still clings to.
But as hard as Ruth tries to escape from the past, the responsibilities of life keep persistently nipping at her heels. She is forced to keep a watchful eye on her father, whose increasingly erratic behavior requires constant, saint-like vigilance. All the while, memories of her fiancé float back at rudely inopportune times, the way unwanted memories are wont to do. Ruth’s mother is also struggling to take care of her husband as she attempts to deal with the anger over his affair with a student, which she does with a kind of mute fury. The cast of this novel are a funny little bunch, each dealing with their own hurt under the same crowded roof, orbiting in restless, concentric circles around each other like a children’s solar system diorama. And while the idea of an aging professor slowly losing control of his memory could potentially make for an extremely maudlin and downcast read, Khong stays clear of sentimentality, instead steering the novel toward lighthearted humor and cheerful absurdity.
At a certain point in Chris Kraus’s 1997 novel I Love Dick, she attempts to describe the inner workings of the schizophrenic mind. “The world gets creamy like a library,” Kraus writes. Creamy. It’s an odd word choice but one that has always stuck with me. Kraus indicates that certain literariness of a jumbled mind, a kind of sensuousness where the clinical gives way to the metaphorical. Although Khong is indeed writing of a clinical disease, there is a kind of softening — a blurring of reality that allows for a richly layered world, one that is not tethered to the mundane constraints of sanity, one in which her characters eat baby carrots dipped in sugar and pants are flung up into stranger’s Christmas trees. Who would have thought that memory loss lends itself, somewhat paradoxically, so well to the novel. In Goodbye, Vitamin certain words get mistaken for others; the world is seen kaleidoscopically through Howard. Ruth’s father delightfully refers to a mechanical pencil as a needle, and when they see some evergreens, he calls the needles pens. Howard’s disorientation in the world allows for a new dimension, a return to a pre-language world in which there are just sensations, observations, and shapes. In this breakdown of language and knowledge, Khong is able to create for the reader a three-dimensional quality to her writing — the geography of the forgotten.
If some of the details in Goodbye, Vitamin are slightly off perhaps this is because the entire book, and not just the passages about Ruth’s father, are tinged with a kind of playful absurdity that places it just perceptibly shy of realism. It is as though the disease has become infectious and the characters, as well as the novel itself, have become infused with a kind of Alzheimer’s logic. Ruth begins to doubt her own capacity to remember, dropping a piece of mail in a garbage can instead of the mailbox. At one point in the novel, a pet shop employee watches in horror as a caged iguana ingests a cricket. “Shit,” he says, “he’s supposed to be an herbivore,” as though the natural laws of the world are suddenly being upended too. It is as though randomness itself has become a stylistic choice for Khong. The disease becomes a brilliant device unto itself, giving way to a whole new set of narrative possibilities.
If there is any downside to the novel, it is that this new style allows for a kind of aloofness that grants Khong a seemingly unlimited amount of creative license. If we are to take into account the theory of suspension of disbelief, then we are in a constant state of suspension throughout this novel. The universe that Khong sets forth for us is a snow globe that she can shake any time she wants in order to evade any kind of real cogency or weight. Take, for example, the fact Ruth keeps bumping into characters from her past, materializing in front of her almost as if pulled out of a hat. There are other facts that don’t seem to come together; Ruth dropped out of college, and yet her previous job was working as a sonogram technician. These are small details, but without them we are left feeling that these terrific characters exist in a world of very little consequence.
The book finds its anchors in Khong’s emotional honesty. One of the more touching aspects of the novel is that it is punctuated by passages from Howard’s old journal, which mostly consists of memories and anecdotes of Ruth as a little girl. These passages are Khong at her best, when the writing is infused with a kind of nostalgia that is totally untouched by sentimentality. Here are the moments when Howard’s and Ruth’s remoteness begins to grow dim and we can imagine for them a life that existed pre-memory loss, in which that same wholehearted attention that Ruth now bestows on her father was once bestowed on her.
Today you asked if I’d ever watched a moth eat clothes and I replied honestly: no.
Today you said you didn’t believe it!
Today you admired a magnolia tree and I told you that it was one of the earth’s oldest plants, that the flowers are so big because beetles used to crawl into them carrying the pollen on their legs. And you asked, Why should I believe you? And that was a very good question.
At the same time, there is something equally unsettling about these passages, as though the journal entries themselves were predictions of the future. In this sense, Khong provides us with the ultimate commentary on our proclivity to record the past. We write because we know, eventually, we will forget. In the same vein, Ruth begins writing down the increasingly bizarre things her father has begun to do:
Today into the enormous salad I was making, you slam-dunked a whole tomato.
Today, I caught you in the garage, eating the peaches from the earthquake kit. I joined you. We drank the syrup and then we drank the packets of water.
At play, there is an obvious reversal of roles, a reversal that is only made possible by the passing of time, that strange full-circle loop-de-loop we as humans are often known to do. Ruth’s father wrote of her understanding the world, Ruth writes of father’s unknowing of it. Side by side, they appear shockingly similar, a devastating duet of crescendo and decrescendo.
It would be unfair to simply dismiss Howard’s Alzheimer’s as a convenient narrative device. There are real revelations about the nature of memory — for both the characters and the reader — that come from his diagnosis. While the book is by no means a clinically accurate exploration of dementia, there are moments of real significance in which the terrifying reality of what it must be like to lose one’s memory comes unexpectedly burbling to the surface with arresting emotional frankness. At one point in the novel, Ruth explains what she has learned from her father’s disease, remarking,
Lately I’m more forgiving. I used to be very quick to judge the old men who don’t know that when you walk past them on the sidewalk where they’re sweeping leaves, they should stop sweeping. But now it occurs to me that maybe these old men have maladies — diseases that affect their manners — and should be pardoned.
For Ruth, there is a kind of softening that has begun to set in, a vulnerability that has opened her up to a different understanding of her father, a man with whom she has always had a somewhat tumultuous relationship.
The novel is a testament to memory: it’s our best friend, it’s our worst enemy, it’s a treasure trove — no, it’s a boxing ring. The same place that stores our most prized childhood memories can also, cruelly, dredge up our most painful ones as well. The irony of this is certainly not lost on Khong, who circles back to it again and again. Just when you think you are about to be smacked over the head by a wave of schmaltz, Khong chooses to take the comedic approach again. “I’m just straight-up demented,” Howard says at one point. As the novel progresses, Khong’s consistent wryness seems to be more of a choice of attitude than anything else. When a stranger calls you up to tell you that they found your father’s pants in their tree, what choice do you have but to roll your eyes? Ruth observes, with conflicting emotion, “The mind tells you what or whom to love, and then you do it, but sometimes it doesn’t: sometimes the mind plays tricks, and sometimes the mind is the worst. But I’m trying — I really am — not to think about those things.” And while the memory loss in Goodbye, Vitamin is a vehicle for humor and play, it ultimately is also a means of expressing absolute tenderhearted emotion.