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'Real Americans' asks: What could we change about our lives?


"The trouble with beginnings is that there's no such thing," muses the narrator of Rachel Khong's debut novel Goodbye, Vitamin. "What's a beginning but an arbitrary point of entry? You begin when you're born, I guess, but it's not like you know anything about that."

The difficulty of demarcating starting points also animates Khong's new book, Real Americans, which begins at least four times: The book is carved up into three novella-length sections, each told from the perspective of a different character, plus a prologue. Khong's latest begins, faute de mieux, with a short set piece in Beijing in 1966 before leaping forward to 1999. In this first section, we meet Lily, one of the book's three protagonists. While working as an unpaid intern at an online travel magazine in New York, she crosses paths with Matthew, a "distractingly hot" asset manager who works in private equity.

They bond over the rather banal fact that they were both born on Long Island and the more consequential fact that they vaguely knew one another as children. The art-history major confesses, "I wasn't the sort of person who yearned to shape a landscape. I wanted only to observe it." Matthew is intrigued enough to propose, after just a few dates. After she loses her job, he wires a thousand dollars to her bank account each week, no questions asked, and gives her a separate allowance to redecorate their condo. It's only when they're about to get married that Lily finds out that Matthew is the scion of a blue-blooded family; he uses a different surname to deflect attention. After they conceive a child via IVF, she discovers a secret connection between Matthew's parents and her own, which splits the family apart.

The book then skips ahead to 2021 and lodges us in the perspective of Nick, Lily's son. It's by far the most plodding and prosaic section, giving us chapter and verse on Nick's teenage years, college relationships, and eventual employment at a foundation whose "many projects included vaccination campaigns; addressing health inequities; screening against diseases in utero," and more. The strongest parts are the early years, when we encounter the high-achieving teen fretting over college admissions; his mother wants him to stay close to their home in Seattle, whereas he itches to matriculate at an Ivy League school on the East Coast. "I was self-absorbed without even knowing who I was, or who I should be — an exasperating combination," he self-mockingly notes. Long estranged from Matthew, Lily raised Nick to understand that his father wanted nothing to do with him. When Nick finally does meet his father — after doing a DNA test — his life takes a fairly predictable turn. Money is an open sesame, unlocking doors to the most prestigious universities, secret societies, and jobs. But the accumulation of it turns Nick into an automaton.

The third and most memorable part of the book is told largely from the perspective of May, Nick's maternal grandmother. It opens in 2030 with a now octogenarian May trailing her grandson, who works at a "biotechnology startup." Nick had been led to believe — once again by his mother — that his grandmother had died years ago, but after bumping into each other in a drugstore, they slowly form a friendship and she unfurls the story of her life. As an adolescent "in the southern basin of the Yangtze River," the "outspoken" May drank in scientific knowledge and distinguished herself as a young scholar. The amount of research Khong did for this section alone, brimming with strange and delightful facts, could earn her an honorary doctorate at some university. In this section, Khong also masterfully evokes the atmosphere of Beijing during the time of the Cultural Revolution and the Four Pests campaign. In school, May strikes up a romance with a fellow student named Ping; together, they "study the lotus and its repair mechanisms" and dream of running away together to the U.S. to become geneticists and escape the oppressiveness of Mao's China. Their dream doesn't come to pass — or only part of it comes to fruition: After a short stay in Hong Kong, May manages to find a job in the U.S., but her new life starts with the "wrong man."

An element of fantasy suffuses all three stories: May and her descendants possess the power to "keep time still." At first, this power feels less like a volitional exertion than the onset of a panic attack. To go into more detail about what exactly is going on would spoil part of the fun of reading the final section; suffice it to say that the time-arresting power has something to do with "an ancient lotus seed." Like his grandmother before him, Nick learns to control this power and opportunistically exploit it by studying longer and more intensely than his classmates.

Many philosophical ideas get an airing in Real Americans, including the existence of free will and the ethics of altering genomes to select for "favorable" inheritable traits and suppress unfavorable ones. "What could we change about our lives? Could we nudge inheritance in particular directions?" wonders one character. Unfortunately, too many of these moral conundrums are expressed in the baldly straightforward manner of a scientific study. But the questions that drive May's academic research baldly double as animating questions for the novel. Unsubtle as they are, they're also queries that we will likely have to answer in the near future — a time when polygenic screenings are increasingly common, people lengthen their lives with elixirs, and beginnings become harder and harder to recall.

Rhoda Feng is a freelance writer from New York whose criticism has appeared in 4Columns, The Baffler, The White Review, The New Republic, Public Books, Village Voice, and others.

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Rhoda Feng