Review – Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
It is hard for me to explain my feelings about this book. I enjoyed this book as a comprehensive whole and I can easily see why it has attracted the amount of buzz that it has. I heard that it is being adapted into a movie, with the lovely Constance Wu of Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off the Boat fame set to play Ruth Young, the protagonist. However, there are aspects of this novel that I didn’t like and I find my criticism for some reason hard to put into words, because I recognize that this novel is a well-crafted piece of art and one that you can tell the author put a lot of themselves into. I did like it! The book was hard to put down and the plot was character-driven, yet for some reason there was still something a little unsettling to me.
I will attempt to explain what I mean. The style of this book, or the author’s voice, felt strangely familiar to me, as if I had read a different book from the same author. This is Khong’s debut novel, so this can’t be the case, but I want to say, and I have heard this explanation somewhere, but I feel that Khong is employing what I have heard called the “MFA style.” This observation opens up a whole other can of worms that I don’t really want to get into, as the notion of the existence of an “MFA style” seems hard to objectively prove. This article provides more commentary on the subject: How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel? But having read writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, and Viet Thanh Nguyen (who actually does not hold an MFA) it almost seemed to me like Khong was writing her novel in a way to fit this notion of “successful” contemporary literary fiction.
The novel aims to be humorous, and one technique that Khong often employs is one of collage: she takes the mundane subject matter of American suburban life and juxtaposes things that don’t normally go together. For example, in one scene of the novel, Ruth is bored at home and engages in some frivolous internet searches:
“I type into the search engine How long to starve to death? and am somewhat heartened by the answer, which is anywhere from three weeks to seventy days. I eat what’s left in the jelly jar.” (58)
Alongside jelly jars, internet searches, and a seemingly absurd question about death and sustenance, the pages of this book are filled with this kind of existential humor, where the bigger questions of life are often found in everyday objects and situations. After this scene, on the very next page we see this technique again, when Ruth goes to her old high school’s track to run and hoping to find a “wandering canary.” She then encounters her former gym teacher, who is looking for a lost earring:
“I get on all fours to join her, but the track is very big, and the earring is very lost. The girls’ track team descends the bleachers in tiny shorts and ponytails.
‘It’s green,’ she tells them. ‘It’s jade.’
They drop to the sand. It’s a good twenty minutes before one of the girls finds it and holds it up. It’s no bigger than a popcorn kernel.
I run six laps, a mile and a half. The high school girls run like beautiful ostriches past me.”
I guess maybe we should praise Khong, as it is really difficult to make boring things sound interesting, however you begin to wonder what the point of these scenes are. Like I said there are a lot of little quirky vignettes like this that don’t really end up going anywhere. We get it, she feels the ennui of suburban life. It feels very style over substance to me, though I could be wrong. With that said it is a great story, and the reader begins to empathize with Ruth as the novel progresses, as she clearly has a lot on her plate: having recently moved back in with her parents in Rialto, she is simultaneously dealing with a bad breakup and a father who is succumbing to Alzheimers. This book was a solid first effort, and I’m hoping that Khong continues to develop as an author and follows this work up with something more mature, and something with a little more substance.
Khong, Rachel. Goodbye, Vitamin. Picador, 2017.