I admit it. I picked this one because it was the shortest.
I’ve a pile of books by my favorite reading chair–books from the Tournament of Books’ long list. They keep arriving at my local library with worrying frequency. So, to speed my way through the stack, I picked the shortest one…
…My new favorite book, Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong.
I wasn’t completely sold at first. The story is good. The characters are both interesting and sympathetic. Ruth, the narrator, has just ended her first long-term relationship with Joel. She even stopped her own education short in order to help his career. Now in her late twenties, she returns home to help take care of her father, Howard, who has just begun what will be a long decline into Alzheimer’s. She agrees to put her own life on hold again, to move back in with her parents and give her mother a hand with taking care of Dad. But it all seemed a little too pat, too movie of the week at first.
Then there was this paragraph on page 68.
You know what else is unfair about Joel? That I loosened the lid, so somebody else could open him.
That’s pretty darn good if you ask me.
The whole book is written like that, in short little paragraphs, some as long as a page, like a series of notes, reminders left for someone. Be sure to remember this.
While it didn’t all add up right away, it did add up by the end. And the total was worth more than the sum of the parts.
Alzheimer’s has become slightly familiar territory in more literary fiction of late. Is there anything new to add? Ruth’s family and her father’s friends rally round him to be as much help as they can. Since Howard is a history professor specializing in California history forced out of his job, his colleagues and a small group of former students arrange for him to give weekly lectures, pretending that they are his students. As long as they can keep the illusion that he still as a class to teach going, he has something to occupy his time and his mind. They even find papers for him to grade. It’s not until he discovers their game that his decline accelerates.
Along the way he forgets the recent past. Ruth discovers signed divorce papers in the back of a closet. She keeps them to herself allowing both of her parents to continue living as though they are still married. Joan, her father’s lover and the woman he was going to leave his wife for, is forgotten first. She has no choice but to accept this and stop seeing him as he no longer remembers her at all.
The man her mother divorced, the one who drank too much, too often, is forgotten next leaving behind the man her mother first fell in love with. He thinks they are still just recently married, so he acts like the man head-over-heels-in-love that he used to be.
Through the first half of the novel, Ruth reads a journal her father kept, filled with small moments of things she did or said as a small child.
Last week I played you the Beach Boys and today you sang the wrong lyrics. You were singing, “I guess I wasn’t made for these tides” and when I tried to correct you, you said, “Well,they were the Beach Boys, weren’t they?” You made a very good point.
These little snippets could become very precious very quickly, internet memes you skim through or skip over, but they worked for me.
And they turn out to be very important.
Because somewhere past the halfway mark, things switched. From reading a series of notes left by a parent who didn’t want to lose these moments spent with his daughter, the novel became a series of notes left by a daughter who didn’t want to lost moments spent with her father.
Today I looked glum, I guess, and you told me it was perfectly normal. “It’s called ‘the fall’, my love,” you said.
Today we ate grapes from a mug and met a white dog that looked like David Bowie.
In both cases, one person hopes to preserve memories of things so small they stand a very good chance of being forgotten.
I was very impressed with Ms. Khong’s writing because I didn’t notice this switch from father to daughter until well after it had already happened which I’m sure applies to people like Ruth who find themselves in this situation. It probably applies to everyone who lives long enough to experience their parents aging. One day you realize what has already been going on for a long time.
It’s also, in a round-about way, one of the reasons why so many of us keep blogs like this one. To better remember what we would otherwise forget.
Blogs, and journals, and diaries, and scrapbooks, and shoe-boxes full of photographs or whatever has become their digital counterpoint.
I feel that once again I’ve done a poor job explaining why I found Goodbye, Vitamin so magical. There you are. In any case Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong is my new favorite book.