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Rachel Khong’s debut novel was born from a break-up, but it could hardly be called a chronicle of a broken heart. Speaking on the phone from San Francisco, Rachel says: “I was initially trying to write about the grief of breaking up with somebody, but then other things got folded in. I became interested in the idea of memory – in terms of relationships, in terms of blacking out and also in terms of Alzheimer’s.” Goodbye, Vitamin has risen from the ashes.
The book charts a year in the life of 30-year-old Ruth, who, after being left by her fiancé Joel, quits her job and returns home to help her mother care for her father, recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. (Rachel’s own grandmother suffered from the disease before her death.) It is told in a series of diary entries, which add a sense of immediacy to Ruth’s experience. There are good days – when she sees in the new year with her best friend. There are bad days – when her dad goes missing. And there are dull days – when she passes the time pulling hair out of plugholes. Rather than a break-up book, it’s a nuanced exploration of family love and remembrance.
It is also a contemporary take on the coming-of-age tale. Ruth’s 30th year looms ominously in the background and with it the inevitable realisation that her parents are flawed human beings. She struggles with her father’s adulterous, alcoholic tendencies and questions her mother’s motivations for staying with him. “It’s about that feeling of trying to understand who the people are that made you,” Rachel says.
Despite the serious subject matter, Goodbye Vitamin is light. Ruth goes to hilarious lengths to appease her father’s fading mind, organising dummy university classes so that he, a former professor, can maintain the illusion of being a teacher. These arrangements result in comical, off-campus classes – at a Chinese restaurant or on horseback in the mountains – to shake off the college authorities. It’s sweet without being saccharine, and moving without feeling depressed. Rachel says: “With sad circumstances there’s a risk of falling into despair or sentimentality that I wanted to avoid. Humour is the way I choose to do that.”
As the former editor of the now folded food magazine, Lucky Peach, Rachel currently has a culinary book on the shelves, too. About Eggs is “part cookery book and part essay collection”, and there’s another novel on the horizon, which looks set to be “bigger and more plot-driven” than her debut. It was through reading women writers – like Joan Didion and Renata Adler – that the author gained the confidence to experiment with structure. She says: “I realised that it doesn’t have to be Moby Dick to be a novel and that it can follow its own form and you can make up the rules.” Keep doing it your way, please.
Can you talk about the characterisation of Ruth?
She is a very exaggerated version of me. I have those tendencies towards absurdity or passivity or even helplessness. I can relate to the way she looks at the world and the guilt she feels over family – that feeling of being a child of somebody; of owing your parents a lot but at the same time recognising that they’re flawed and sometimes being upset by it.
Why did you choose the diary form?
I never thought that I could write a novel. I was always working on short stories – really short ones – because I just didn’t think I had it in me to write a long thing. I don’t think of myself as a person who could tell a story at a campfire – this long story that falls into the night and everyone’s riveted. But I started reading a lot of women writers who wrote really short novels that were episodic or just fragmented, like Renata Adler’s Speedboat or Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion. I then had the idea to have it contain a single year and I figured out the journal was the best format for it.
Are you less daunted now by the process of writing a novel?
It makes it feel less crazy. When I was younger a lot of things seemed crazy – like saving enough money to buy a car, buying a house, getting married. It turns out that writing a novel is just about putting a lot of words into a document. I’m working on something else now and it will have its own issues…but just the fact that I have already done it definitely helps.
What books do you have on your nightstand at the moment?
I have Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, and Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property. Books I loved recently were 300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso, Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Cottrell and Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar. As for authors I always go back to, there are too many to list, but: Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, Lucia Berlin, Mary Robison, Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor…
Is the age of 30 significant to you? For Ruth it’s a big one.
I’m 31 now and turning 32 soon. When I first started writing the book Ruth was 26 and she felt she should have her life sorted by now, but she doesn’t and she’s distressed over this. As I got older myself I thought, “This is crazy, she can’t feel this bad at 26!” so I had to keep making Ruth older, too. It’s really hard to imagine this book from a male perspective, but the male version of Ruth – if he were 30 and unmarried and jobless he would be fine – he would just figure it out. He’d be just a young, carefree man. But I think for women it is different.
At the end of the book, Ruth’s dad asks her to write everything down so that he won’t forget. Is that how you commit things to memory?
Of course physically you can remember things better if you write them down, but if you record things then you’re also choosing to forget other things. You’re giving specific importance to things you’ve written down. I’ve personally never written a journal – first of all because I can’t read them (like it’s so distressing to me!) but I can also feel my falseness in it. If I just write things down to work them out then I just have this record of my whole life in tear-splattered pages. This book is really about what gets written down and what gets left out.