Rachel Khong’s first novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, is a story of regular people dealing with irregular things. It dials down the looming menace of that which we fear the most for ourselves and our loved ones, while underlining just how extraordinary it is to be a person surrounded by other people.
Vitamin‘s narrator, Ruth, moves home for a year to help her mom take care of her dad, who’s in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and is not at all interested in being cared for. In spite of this potentially dour terrain, the book is far more funny than sad. It’s exactly the kind of strongly voiced, astutely observed, emotionally gripping novel that I love.
Khong is the author of All About Eggs: Everything We Know about the World’s Most Important Food and the former executive editor of Lucky Peach magazine. Unsurprisingly, her talent for food writing is fully on display here, too. In anticipation of the book’s release today, Rachel and I had an email conversation about writing and food.
ANNIE BOSTROM: Ruth’s dad is experiencing serious memory loss, which is the source of both transcendent humor and genuine sorrow. Do you admire any novels that walk the same line?
RACHEL KHONG: You’ve perfectly put a name to my favorite books, which are books that balance humor and sorrow to devastating end. Which is to say, I admire way too many to list! Some favorites novels include The Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine by Stanley Crawford, Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban, and The Pharmacist’s Mate by Amy Fusselman. And not a novel, but the stories of Amy Hempel, who walks that tragic-hilarious tightrope so well.
This novel is told in dated entries, like a diary. Do you keep a journal?
I never pictured Ruth as keeping a diary. I thought of the dates more as labels; they were a way to differentiate the days as narrated by Ruth which, especially in the beginning, were mostly days spent being bored. I’m not a journaler—I find looking back on old journals to be too embarrassing—but last May, I started writing in Tamara Shopsin’s Five-Year Diary, a tiny, hardbound journal that has a page for each day of the year. Each of the pages is divided into five sections, one section for one year, so that you can look back over the same day on the previous year or two or five. It only takes a few minutes to write down a few sentences about the day, but it’s been a fascinating thing to look back on what life was like a year ago, and how different it was.
What’s your favorite takeout?
This is not exactly take-out, but there’s a Korean grocery store just south of San Francisco called Kukje, which I love. I sometimes stop there on the way home from the airport, and usually while famished. I’ll buy a package of kimbap, Korean sushi stuffed with meat and vegetables, and comes a few rolls to a plastic-wrapped pack. I’ll do my shopping while snacking, and by the time I get to the cash register, the kimbap is almost completely gone and the cashier has to ring up an almost-empty tray. But the cashiers never blink an eye—like they’ve seen this happen many times before.
Have you, like Ruth, ever made one of those microwaved mug-cakes, known in the book as THE MOST DANGEROUS CAKE IN THE WORLD?
I have indeed. If you’re feeling short on time and want something slightly more fancy than chocolate chips poured directly into your mouth (I’ve also done this), the mug cake is a nice, soufflé-esque alternative. I learned about it via my mom back in 2009, when she forwarded me an email with the subject line “THE 5 MINUTE CHOCOLATE CAKE FOR ONE PERSON…… ..HOW NEAT”. You mix things in a mug, microwave it (I like it at a more molten 2 minutes), and then you have a serviceable, if slightly spongy, cake. A quick Google search for “microwave mug cakes” should yield lots of recipes, if you’re inclined to try.
Ruth and her family—all such well-developed characters—are in the middle of such a precarious moment. Was it hard to know when to walk away, and leave them be?
From the very beginning, when I was just starting to write the book and still unsure about a lot of things, I knew that I wanted the novel to span a year, and I knew that I didn’t want anything huge to happen in that year. As in, I didn’t want anyone to die or get married or be born; I didn’t want anything overly dramatic to happen. I wanted the book to inhabit quieter moments, and to be about these smaller interactions that reflect the way life often is. A tidy, definitive ending wouldn’t have been right for this book or the people in it; I wanted to leave the suggestion that life goes on, for all of these characters, even after the last page.
Interview by Annie Bostrom, first published Booklist.,