Bookforum talks with Rachel Khong

Goodbye, Vitamin: A Novel BY Rachel Khong. Henry Holt and Co.. Hardcover, 208 pages. $26.
Rachel Khong

Rachel Khong’s debut novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, begins after the narrator, Ruth, has been suddenly and inexplicably dumped by her fiancé. Alone and adrift in San Francisco, a city that she has little connection to outside the failed relationship, she decides to cut her losses and move home to help her family cope with her father’s recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The landscape and history of Southern California drives the diary-like narrative of Ruth’s return to the Inland Empire. Jarred by the unexpected breakup and her father’s increasingly erratic behavior, Ruth spends much of her time wryly questioning the world she’s suddenly found herself adrift in, offering musings that will make you ponder basic assumptions about modern socializing and interpersonal dynamics.

Khong is also the author of All About Eggs: Everything We Know About the World's Most Important Food, and was the executive editor of Lucky Peach. In its own way, Goodbye, Vitamin is also about food—an intimate look at how our relationship to what we eat dictates daily life. As Ruth and her mother work to create a new lifestyle for her father, Ruth ponders both the intricacy of how vitamins and minerals affect brain chemistry and how the act of cooking for family, friends, and lovers creates community. It is a novel about how families simultaneously change and stay the same when the children are grown, and how women live outside the social functions of wife, girlfriend, mother, and daughter. Filled with precise, gemlike sentences, Goodbye, Vitamin looks at loss, the minutiae of caring for family or strangers, and the fickle nature of memory.

Khong and I recently spoke on the phone about California, the absurdity of social norms, and the process of creating her singular narrative style.

I love that you have a 909 number. I used to live in the Inland Empire.

It’s kind of uncool to have a 909 number. We were in Rancho Cucamonga, and whenever I met someone from LA they would be like, “Oh, you have a 909 number.” Kind of judgmentally.

People do get judgey, but I love it! That’s part of what got me into the book so quickly. Goodbye, Vitamin takes place in California, and you were able to integrate so much of the state’s history, and observations about people’s lifestyles, really seamlessly into the story. Did you know that would be such an important part of the book when you started writing it?

I knew right away I was going to set the book in Southern California, in the Inland Empire, because it was a place that I knew really well. There were so many things I didn’t know how to do in terms of writing a novel, but I was really familiar with a lot of the history of Southern California just through growing up there. I’m also really familiar with California on a more minute level, like being stuck in traffic on the way to LA—those sorts of things were elements that I knew I could write about very confidently. Since there was so much I didn’t know how to do, I could at least check “setting” off the list.

That makes sense, especially since you chose such a unique form for the narrative. The story is built from Ruth’s diary-like vignettes. It’s a style I’ve seen a little in the past few years—with, say, Jenny Offill—but it seems like it’s becoming more prominent in fiction lately. How did you develop that voice?

It really came out along the lines of the first answer, just born out of not knowing how to write a book. I always had the idea that I would just write short stories. I never thought I could manage a novel, it always seemed like such a huge project—how could I ever sit with one subject and write over a hundred pages about it? And I think that it started to seem more possible to me after I started reading these books, mostly by women, that were a lot shorter and more fragmented, that had as much white space as they had words. Back then it was pre–Jenny Offill, but it feels like maybe she and others were influenced by the same sorts of books. I’m thinking of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, or Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, or Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights—it just goes on and on. Reading these books, I realized that I didn't have to write a novel that looks like Moby-Dick or The Corrections. Something shorter can be just as powerful. To me, what was so impressive was how much they could fit into such a small space.

But that said, I went through a lot of different iterations of this, it wasn’t always the way it looks now. I tried so many different versions, and when I arrived at this kind of dated short-entry thing, it felt right.

I found it really fascinating that you were able to integrate so much about food into the book—it seemed relevant to your work at Lucky Peach. Was it a conscious decision to make a book that overlapped with your other work?

It’s hard for me to answer that question because I feel like it’s hard for me to separate these two projects of mine. The novel started way before I got into writing about food or started my job at Lucky Peach. I think I already had a lot of food in it because food is something I think about a lot. Also, it’s a book about being at your parents’ house, and when I'm at my parents’ house I mostly think about snacks, because there’s not a whole lot to do. When I started writing the book, I was just trying to represent accurately how often a normal person thinks about food.

I didn’t really try very hard to separate the food-writing me and the fiction-writing me. It’s all just kind of a jumbled mess in my brain. Sometimes there were elements to the novel that then found themselves in my food writing. I wrote a piece for Lucky Peach about food and memory and keeping a food blog, and that was something that I had been thinking about because of the novel—it was a big obsession of mine. Novel writing is a really long process, so exploring it through nonfiction was a way to think about it as well.

Memory is such a big theme in the book. Ruth muses a lot about how she and her ex-boyfriend Joel each have different memories of the same event, and she wonders which one becomes the true version. It felt very connected to Ruth’s father slowly losing his memory, even though dating and parent/child relationships are very different things! How did they connect for you?

I was interested in both of those things—memory in your relationships with a romantic partner and memory when it comes to parents and children. Regardless of what kind of connection you have with someone, memory is what relationships are founded on. They’re basically all we have when it comes to relating to other people, and even when it comes to thinking about our own lives—how we narrate our own lives is based on what we remember. I came to be interested in the romantic relationship part of it kind of selfishly: I’d just had a breakup when I started this book. It felt like I was remembering one version of our relationship and he was remembering another version, and they weren’t aligning. That was also interesting to me to think about in terms of parents and children, because your parents can remember a huge chunk of your own life that you can’t access. They remember so much more about you than you remember about yourself. What does that mean? Where do you go from there?

Even though she’s moving home as an adult, Ruth and her father retain some of their original roles as child and parent. But she also takes on a parental role due to his illness.

In the book, Ruth is just sort of starting that process, her dad isn’t in terrible shape yet. I didn’t want the book to be about that complete reversal—there was already so much going on in terms of things that were sad, so I guess I wasn’t ready to have that happen fully. I think that I wanted to start to explore this very basic idea, that your parents are human beings, too. When they had you or when they became parents themselves, they didn’t necessarily have their shit figured out. In the process of writing the book, more of my friends started having kids. I always kind of naively thought that something would change when you decide to be a parent—that you’d somehow be more mature or you would be more responsible—and now I see that’s really not true. You can be just as unsure of yourself, and that was something that I wanted to write about.

And then you see absurd people you know having children, and you’re just like, “Oh my god, there’s no barrier to entry!”

It’s always been crazy to me that you don’t need to have to go through any kind of training. You should have to read a manual or something! It’s crazy that you get children by having sex. It seems like the worst way. You should only be able to have children through protected sex!

In the book, I loved how Ruth had the tendency to call out these social absurdities. In one scene, she’s talking about her breakup with Joel: “He told me, Ruth, don’t get me wrong, I care for you deeply. He said that! And what I thought then—and what I think now—was, That’s not something to say. That isn’t anything.” People really get away with saying these things, but they’re total nonsense.

I’m definitely interested in calling out these very common conventional things that have no meaning. Ruth is approaching it with this newly blasted-apart sensibility, as she’s just been through this breakup, so she’s feeling skeptical of all the romantic things that have ever been said. The books that I identify with the most, or that I find myself remembering, are books that make you see a common thing in a new way, or slightly tweak the way that you’ve been thinking about the world. I’m regretting this as I say it, because it sounds way too grandiose.

We touched on the idea of adulthood—the transition to having children, how you prepare for that—but adults now are moving in with their parents. In one part of the book, Ruth is talking about her friend Bonnie and says, “This makes me a terrible person, I know, but it comes as a relief to me that my best friend is in a not-dissimilar boat—the unmarried and careerless boat. Which is more like a canoe.” This idea of adults coming together to form a community when they’re not following the traditional path to adulthood—either through relationships, careers, or children—what about that fascinated you?

I think it’s a pretty new phenomenon for women in their late twenties or thirties to still be coming of age. I wanted to hang out in that space a little bit, to have characters who hadn’t done the conventional thing (which isn’t even that conventional anymore—twenty- and thirty-somethings look quite different than they used to). Even though it’s much more common now, I don’t think that there are enough books about women in that in-between stage of their lives. For so long it was about the male version of that—I want the female version to exist, too. It wasn’t a huge mission I had, but it was a place that I’ve been in, and that friends of mine have been in, and talking about it seemed worth doing.

It’s starting to be more explored not just in books, but also in television and movies. The more people who contribute to it the better, since it’s been ignored for so long.

I’d be happy to read or watch a million more books and TV shows about a thirty something woman trying to—not even figure shit out, but just exist happily without a relationship and without kids. I’m so happy to see the influx. It’s still not enough.

Rebecca Schuh is a writer based in Brooklyn.