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Writing to remember

By Jessica Au
Alzheimer’s drives the narrative of Rachel Khong’s ‘Goodbye, Vitamin’ but it isn’t the novel’s focus

Alzheimer’s today remains an illness of great mystery: scientists do not yet fully understand its causes, and there is no known cure. What is known, as discovered by Alois Alzheimer in 1906, is that strange amounts of protein begin to build in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, creating what’s referred to as amyloid plaques and tau tangles. These plaques and tangles block messages between neurons, which stop firing and eventually die, causing the brain’s volume to shrink.

To see a loved one’s personality change over time is one thing, but to see it deteriorate so rapidly is what gives Alzheimer’s its particular existential sting, and children who return to care for a parent can find themselves in the midst of an unsettling peripeteia as adults become childlike, as memory and language dissolve, and as the duty of care is indelicately and irreparably reversed. This life stage has been portrayed by Simone de Beauvoir in The Woman Destroyed and Annie Ernaux in the excellent I Remain in Darkness, and this, too, is Rachel Khong’s chosen subject for her debut, Goodbye, Vitamin (Simon & Schuster; $29.99), in which Ruth returns home to care for her ailing father, Howard.

Ruth is something of a prodigal. Arguably her father’s favourite, she left for college before he had an affair and began drinking, and remained wilfully absent afterwards, as if to preserve the glow of their relationship. But Howard’s illness and her mother’s request for help draw her back, at 30, newly separated from her partner, and in a crisis of her own. Goodbye, Vitamin takes the form of a diary, written in fragments, as if Ruth has little time in which to make her record, and can only jot them down in the interstitial moments. We know little of what Ruth does by way of care during her year at home, but we do know that she cooks, hopefully, wishfully: rosemary for remembrance, broccoli for a sharp brain. However, Goodbye, Vitamin wears lightly this magical thinking in the restorative power of food.

Khong is, by her own admission, more interested in the problem of memory than she is in the brutal realities of the disease. But what kind of remembering exactly? Is the act of recording a way to combat the vagaries of the human mind? Or is it simply a better way to live in the present? Is it a way to establish coherence, to place a palatable gloss over all that has happened? Goodbye, Vitamin suggests the latter. Ruth is fond of lists – “Things that take up room in my brain that I wish didn’t” – and of observable quirks. She is also fond of a certain kind of everyday epiphany that resembles what the philosopher Daniel Dennett has called “deepities” (a term coined by the teenage daughter of a friend), that is, statements that can be read two ways: one that is both true and trivial, and another that is intriguing but false. Dennett’s favoured example is “love is just a word” – read literally, this is true but immaterial, and while it sounds profound, it is actually false (love is many other things besides). Once one becomes aware of these kinds of neat, merchandised sentences, they seem to be everywhere: in our social media feeds, in movies, on gifts, in poetry. And so Ruth writes: “A long time ago I stopped wondering why there were so many crazy people. What surprises me now is that there are so many sane ones.” and “We don’t need more memories. It’s hard enough trying to get a handle on the ones we’ve got.” The effect is a Dennett-like semblance of meaning: pleasurable but empty. In the same way, Goodbye, Vitamin is certainly enjoyable, but there is a lightness here, a romantic world view, that fails to make it last beyond the moment of reading. Everyone in Ruth’s circle, even her ex, even Howard at his worst, retains their essential goodness. This is not a problem per se – of course people can be and often are good, but it is goodness that rests on simplicity rather than on moral complexity.

Perhaps part of the difficulty is that we have the belief, or at least the desire, that death and illness should transform us, that undergoing such a profound experience should in itself lead to many profundities. A more frightening realisation might be that it doesn’t, or that, if it does, these transformations are not easily distillable. “It’s not that easy,” Ruth says to her brother, Linus, “to say what happened.” And it isn’t.

Jessica Au

Jessica Au is a Melbourne writer and an associate editor at Aeon.

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