Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
While abandoned orphans fight and starve in Darfur, Rachel Khong offers Goodbye, Vitamin, the story of how her first-world life could actually be a lot better, all the while taking minimal responsibility for her own errors in judgement. While the story presents itself as the unbreakable power of family over the failures and betrayals of reality, Khong appears blissfully unaware that her tale is very simply about a privileged 30-year-old who has inherited her mother’s bad taste in men. Goodbye, Vitamin shares heavy overlap with its contemporary peers, utilizing a stale and deliberately quirky format to deliver a work that means everything to her and little to us.
30-year-old Ruth’s engagement is off, having discovered her emotionally distant fiance’s infidelities. In lieu of constructive coping, this fallout provides a convenient reason for childlike regression. Ruth moves back to her parents’ house, ostensibly to help take care of her father Howard (who has a philandering history of his own). He’s an accomplished history professor currently on mandatory leave due to an apparent onset of dementia. Banned from the campus due to safety concerns, one of Howard’s colleagues Feels Bad About the Whole Thing. He enlists Ruth to help orchestrate a covert weekly mock-class, so that Howard can continue believing he’s a competent teacher. To what end this scheme serves is never made clear, beyond the conspirators’ obvious denial that the wheel of time marches forward, regardless of your opinion.
This novel’s release was within a week of Weike Wang’s Chemistry, and the two works share many eerie similarities of thematic content, tone, and structure. Both novels star Asian-Americans of above-average attractiveness whose failed relationships plunge them into a quarterlife existential crisis. These “crises” are the product of their entitlement and lack of coping skills, rather than life dealing them a genuinely horrible hand. Both novels feature emotionally distant parents whom the narrators conveniently blame for their own shortcomings. It feels like some kind of odd circular plagiarism in terms of tone and chapter structure. The narrators are neurotic and quirky; many chapters rally in quick bursts, padded with random facts intended to carry some of the thematic heavy lifting. Khong’s gimmickery might have been worth the overlap had these narrative techniques succeeded in Chemistry. (They didn’t.)
Goodbye, Vitamin’s recipe is extremely distracting. It’s a thinly veiled dumping ground of Khong’s true life diary entries, shoehorned along with paper thin plot-drivers that reveal the author’s lackluster ability to imagine a life outside her own bubble. To its merit, the genuine sentiment and detail in the narrator’s collapsed relationship and heartbreak clearly comes from a real place, as the intensity of Ruth’s damaged emotional capacity does speak relevantly to the human experience. Khong also appears to have had real exposure to someone in severe cognitive decline, as the scenes featuring Howard’s shaky mental acuity are heartbreakingly real, while avoiding anything too depressing. Aside from these subjects worth mining, some of the other story anchors prove rather wobbly. The relevance of Ruth’s career as an ultrasound tech remains woefully underexplored. You can hear Khong deliberating in the writer’s room: “I need to give this main character some type of job, so I’ll just throw a dart at the wall and pick whatever.”
Scenes involving the staged college class show Khong’s imaginative acumen at its weakest. The three or four grad students who agree to participate in this weekly facade are scarcely pronounced. The narrator never speaks to why they inexplicably help indulge the denial of an professor’s decline into senility. The group continually discusses tedious logistics, deliberating on which classroom to use each week, since they need to hide the endeavor from the department chair that (justly) banned Howard from the campus. Darting through parking lots and around hallway corners are the novel’s cheap stab at manufactured suspense. The worst part is the cringey way each session begins, as Ruth summarizes the content of Howard’s lesson that week. Each installment features tedious factoids about the history of California, meant to be quirky and insightful, but in reality accomplishing neither.
Given the overly indulgent subject matter, this debut novel demonstrates that that an author can only get so far with a creative writing MFA and a predisposition for competent prose. These ingredients don’t automatically mean you have something worth saying, and circular navelgazing is often an inevitable product. Goodbye, Vitamin features truisms as functionless as “It doesn’t matter who remembers what, I guess, as long as somebody remembers something.” At her clumsiest, Khong insists on a colon and semicolon into the same sentence, stating “‘This is beautiful,’ I say, holding one up: it might be a self-portrait; it’s not obviously so.” The kicker is Ruth’s description of a date, the inevitable product of this novel’s obligatory romantic tension arc: “It was, I admit, nice. It felt like a stupid movie.” And thus we have a work of fiction’s narrator describing the proceedings as resembling a lame work of fiction.
Khong takes what should be an Act I character flaw and stretches it through the entire book—Ruth makes no real attempt to grow. After getting knocked down she expresses minimal interest in getting back up. Understandably, a collapsed engagement is an emotional catastrophe, and initially we cheer the possibility she’ll move on. Instead, she regresses, endlessly agonizing over the details of the failed relationship, even throughout the book’s final phases. These ponderings spiral into some pretty bleak statements about the nature of human relationships, purporting that many of us are imperfect carriers of love, focused mainly on how someones makes us feel rather than a genuine appreciation for that person themself. Such a boldly cynical statement is what makes the novel’s eventual glorification of familial bonds all the more inappropriate. When the family gathers together to sing Kumbaya around the fire, any victory or peace they appear to attain is entirely unearned. No one has atoned for anything.