Exit West
  • March 23, 2018


  • Mohsin Hamid

    1Exit West
    2Goodbye, Vitamin

    Rachel Khong

  • Judged by

    Bryan Mealer

Goodbye, Vitamin

When Exit West and Goodbye, Vitamin arrived by mail a day apart, I immediately sensed a loaded game. Here was Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, already hailed as a classic for its beauty and timely subject matter of migrants fleeing war, not to mention having been selected as a finalist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. Versus Rachel Khong’s debut novel that came across, at first glance, as light and overly clever when put against Hamid’s profound narrative. I was pleased to discover that I was wrong. Not only that, but the two books actually complement one another on heavy, relevant themes of home, identity, and loss of place.

Bryan Mealer is a journalist and the author of four books, including the bestselling The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (with William Kamkwamba), soon to be a major film, and The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family’s Search for the American Dream. He lives in Austin. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

Exit West follows the journey of Saeed and Nadia, two lovers who flee their unnamed country as it descends into chaos and war, only to discover a series of magical doors that serve as first-world escape hatches for millions of refugees on the move. Goodbye, Vitamin is narrated by a 30-year-old woman named Ruth who, after suffering a breakup, moves home with her parents to care for her father, a professor and former alcoholic who now has Alzheimer’s.

Both books were oddly personal for me. As a reporter in Congo, I spent years writing about refugees and mass movements of displaced persons fleeing war and famine. And just this past Christmas, we buried my mother-in-law after Alzheimer’s had whittled her down to nothing. One loses physical ground, while the other loses any memory of it. For both, home becomes an abstract concept that grows both fonder and more distant. My mother-in-law could remember her childhood vividly, yet not the daughters she raised. In Goodbye, Vitamin, Ruth’s father carries letters he wrote to his daughter when she was young to bridge the murky divide, yet wanders around lost in his own neighborhood and terrifies his family with blind, blackout rages where he smashes the furniture and dishes.

And with both displacement and dementia, there comes a point of no return, when the ground which was vacated becomes lost forever, buried under rubble or a permanent darkness. In Exit West, as often with relatives of those with Alzheimer’s, that point comes too suddenly and leaves a wake of regret. Before the war, Nadia and her parents had become estranged over a silly disagreement, something they “regretted, but which none of them would ever act to repair, partly out of stubbornness, partly out of bafflement at how to go about doing so, and partly because the impending descent of their city into the abyss would come before they realized that they had lost the chance.”

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Even Ruth herself is displaced after having been dumped by her longtime fiancé. Her heart broken, she quits her job, leaves San Francisco, and heads home to San Bernardino County. “My street smells cold and familiar,” Ruth says upon arriving. “It feels like there’s a sun going down in my head, and outside it is rising as I pull into town, my five hours of energy coming to a not-unpleasant close.” But her home is not the one she left, her parents are not the same people, and now she must navigate a familiar, yet now foreign landscape.

In Exit West, the new landscapes are accessed through various portals that open up across the globe, in supply closets and storage sheds and elsewhere, and lead to new beginnings. The passage into the next world, Hamid writes, “was both like dying and like being born.” Nadia and Saeed first land on the Greek island of Mykonos, a tropical paradise. But so have thousands of other migrants from Africa and the Middle East, who live in a sprawling refugee camp where the locals do not want them. They next journey to London, where they’re met with the same harsh treatment. New portals open up all the time, some back to the places where migrants had fled. But few ever go back, no matter how homesick, choosing instead to forge new identities, as Ruth does in Goodbye, Vitamin. She eventually couples with one of her father’s former students and a romance blossoms, new life begins, all while her father edges closer to oblivion.

I realize now that I should have read Khong’s book first. Picking it up the day after finishing Exit West, I was still under Hamid’s lyrical trance, still ruminating on the vast social commentary and narrative structure when I encountered Ruth and her broken heart. Khong is sly and funny on the page, but Ruth’s whimsical day-to-day observations, written in diary form, started grating on my nerves after the first 20 pages and I longed to be pulled in and transported like I had been with Nadia and Saeed.

But like with any good novel, power lurked beneath the subtleties. Amid Ruth’s hangovers and trips to the grocery store, there comes light touches of darkness: one line about her father once taking water bottles of gin to work, a slight hint about the damage his drinking had done to her mother. His vanishings and rages are rendered in barely a page, then it’s back to her quotidien existence, trying to come to grips with forces she cannot control.

As I discovered in Congo and also recently with my mother-in-law, there comes a time when you give in to the wilderness and accept where it leads. Today the Congolese are a scattered people with roots planted in America, Europe, and elsewhere on the continent. My wife and her family said two goodbyes, one to the mother they loved and remembered, and later to the body she left behind. In the end, all of our characters—Nadia, Saeed, and Ruth—eventually settle on this acceptance. Finding peace and a solid footing in the drift becomes their imperative. And just like in real life, it won’t do any good to look back.


The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By David Yoon

Nozlee Samadzadeh: We’ve tried almost everything under the sun in the 14 years of the Tournament, from irascible musician judges to bookseller guest commentators to the year we had an official statistician. But the one thing we’ve never done is pivot to video, and that’s exactly what’s (temporarily) happening today.

Here’s booktuber David Yoon (known to the commentariat as Daejin) commenting on today’s match in his capacity as The Poptimist. We’ve included a transcript of David’s commentary below, but trust us, you’ll want to watch this.

David Yoon: Hi, I’m David from The Poptimist. I’m a booktuber, part of that vast, long tail of YouTube where like-minded book nerds get together to geek out over what they’re reading. It is totally a thing. But what am I doing here?

David Yoon is just a tiny sucker on the many-tentacled beast that is booktube, where overenthusiastic and underqualified bibliophiles gather to geek out over what they're reading. His YouTube channel The Poptimist is all unabashed muppet arms for current literary fiction and book-adjacent interests. He admonishes you to keep reading, but more importantly: like and subscribe.

Well, the Tournament of Books can’t help itself. Back in 2009, they decided they’d turn on reader comments and somehow it didn’t explode into a dumper fire of snark, outrage, and thinly veiled clickbait.

Then last year they got Christopher and Drew from the So Many Damn Books podcast to go on Facebook Live and offer up weekly recaps, and Tournament goers didn’t take to the streets in outrage. And so this year, the Tournament thought, on top of accomplished journalists, esteemed authors, respected editors, and Ph.D. candidates, it’d be a good idea to throw it to some guy who makes book-related videos in his basement.

So let’s just dive right into it, with the fact that you and I both know that Judge Bryan Mealer is wrong. But he’s wrong in the most excusable of ways. He even acknowledges how it’s possible that he advanced the wrong book. The simple fact of the matter is that by reading Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West first he does no favors for Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin.

In Exit West, we are privy to the arc of a relationship. Saeed’s in an evening class in an unnamed city in the grip of violent unrest when he first notices the tawny oval birthmark on his classmates Nadia’s neck. Nadia is your Middle Eastern manic pixie dream girl. She’s Zooey Deschanel by way of Lahore. She lives alone, drives a motorcycle, loves vinyl, takes mushrooms, and dresses with an eye to self-protection—flowing black robes that cover her from head to toe not out of any religious accommodation, but so that, as she puts it, “men don’t fuck with me.”

When they’re eventually forced to flee their city, Nadia, already an adventurous spirit, is ready to face what might be. She’s excited to discover what’s out there and who she might become. Saeed, on the other hand, clings to the past—he’s homesick for the city of his birth and he’s wracked with the guilt of leaving his father behind.

The different ways they navigate the new world together creates a quiet tension and the book ends on a thoughtful, bittersweet note as we’re reintroduced to Saeed and Nadia half a century later. As we close the book, we’re put in, as Judge Mealer puts it, a “lyrical trance.”

And then you meet Ruth of Goodbye, Vitamin.

She’s 30, sitting alone in her apartment that she’s supposed to be sharing with her fiancé Joel—who, on the day of the move, announced he would not be joining her and instead would be staying at the old apartment with his new girlfriend. And he even follows it with “Don’t get me wrong, I care for you deeply.”

You think you know what you’re going to get. There’s the fun girlfriend telling her, “Just forget about him.” The awkward New Year’s Eve party, and Ruth suddenly realizing she’s wearing Joel’s engagement ring. This is going to be tough slogging—how did this end up on the shortlist? I mean, we’re all about the Literature here! Think of the Tournament as a Pitchfork for books: We’re all about the Decemberists and the Mountain Goats and we leave the Nickelback to the common rabble.

Even Judge Mealer initially feels like this is a loaded game, one of those unlikely matchups the Tournament is known for. Mohsin Hamid has been shortlisted for the Man Booker—twice—and this, his fourth novel, has topped many a year-end list. Meanwhile, this is Rachel Khong’s debut novel (if you don’t count her earlier collaboration with Lucky Peach on the book All About Eggs—not a metaphor, in fact all about eggs).

While books like Manhattan Beach and Lincoln in the Bardo can be unceremoniously ousted by relative unknowns, let’s be clear: This is not a David and Goliath situation. And to his credit, Judge Mealer is too smart to fall for his initial impressions and eventually does come around. He’s happy to admit these books are close contenders and, in fact, compliment one another on relevant themes of home, identity, and loss of place.

All the kudos to Judge Mealer, who does an incredible job drawing parallels between these two books: “And with both displacement and dementia, there comes a point of no return, when the ground which was vacated becomes lost forever, buried under rubble or a permanent darkness.” I appreciate Judge Mealer acknowledging the validity of Goodbye, Vitamin, but I get it. As a freaking reporter in the Congo, spending years writing about refugees and mass movements of displaced persons fleeing war and famine, he would naturally gravitate to the narrative of Exit West.

Meanwhile, I’m a suburban, middle-class, second-generation Korean dad who recently sent his biracial daughter off to university, which means that my wife and I are navigating a whole new relationship with our only child and her with us. And despite how both Judge Mealer and I are uniquely positioned in relation to these two stories, I still think Goodbye, Vitamin should have gone on.

Listen, Exit West is a timely story. The distrust, the attacks, the isolation that Nadia and Saeed are subject to, speak to the closing off of borders and the growing xenophobic narrative that’s becoming all too common. From the very moment you pick up Exit West, it is clear about what you’re going to get, and it delivers exactly what you expect: vast social commentary matched with lyrical prose.

Goodbye, Vitamin is something else entirely. It’s as warm and familiar as your mom’s cooking, but at the same time this thing swings. I think when it fails, it fails because it doesn’t meet the expectations readers bring to it, and that it requires readers be willing to have their minds changed and be surprised.

I mean, this isn’t an epistolary millennial rom-com novel with the requisite meet-cute and third act payoff. It’s not even a gripping Alzheimer’s saga that wants to grapple with themes of identity and wrestle with issues around infidelity, alcoholism, and the resultant collateral damage like some overacted weepy movie of the week.

It’s just a year in the life. It’s about memory and forgiveness, and how both are completely subjective and wholly unpredictable. Goodbye, Vitamin doesn’t resolve so much as it simply ends. But I found myself thinking about the book long after I’d put it down.

Now, as this is the final match of the quarterfinals, I need to throw it back to Kevin and John so they can give us an update on the status of the Zombies. So, this is the Poptimist, saying thanks for letting me play along, have a great week of reading, and I’ll talk to you soon.

Kevin Guilfoile: Another Rooster first! I love it. Terrific job, David, and thank you.

Sadly, despite David’s impassioned defense, we say so long and farewell to Goodbye, Vitamin. That book does not have enough votes to drive a stake in the eye of either Lincoln in the Bardo or Sing, Unburied, Sing. If the Zombie Round were held today, those books would return as our incorporeal codices.

John Warner: We’ll check the Zombie standings again next Tuesday before the real Zombie Round begins. For now we’ll all get a couple of days off before the semifinals, which kick off on Monday with author Shelly Oria choosing between Fever Dream and Dear Cyborgs, with Andrew, Nozlee, and Rosecrans here in the booth.

Nozlee: And don’t forget to vote before midnight ET on Sunday, March 25 for which titles you want to see in our first-ever Rooster nonfiction event.

Thanks once again to David for bringing the Rooster to the screen! And everyone else, let us know in the comments if video is something you’d like to see more of in the future.

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