Vuong, Ocean. “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel”, Penguin Press, 2019.
A Family, A First Love and Telling a Story
Before I read this novel, I knew Ocean Vuong as a fine poet and even though I knew a novel was in progress, he really surprised me with this. “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter is a family’s history that began before he was born. The history is rooted in Vietnam and is, I effect, a look into parts of his life that his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. In the letter we feel the undeniable love between a single mother and her son. It is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. The letter asks questions that are important to our American moment, “immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness”.
Most of you have no idea what it is like to have a family member who cannot read (or even speak the same language you do). My grandmother and I were never able to communicate—she knew she had grandchildren but really knew nothing about us. How different it could have been had we been able to share thoughts. We missed each other’s stories. “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is about the power of telling one’s own story and the silence of not being heard.
Ocean Vuong’s writing stuns in its grace as he writes about people in disparate worlds. He asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. Here is the question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy— this is what propels the novel. There is a sense of immediacy here but we live in a world that demands immediacy. Unlike others, I do not feel that this immediacy is unique since I live with it every day.
Vuong was first published as a poet, and his poetry in this novel; in the images and ideas. Little Dog is the narrator and he is in his late twenties. He writes a letter to his Vietnamese mother. Even though Little Dog and his family grew up poor in Hartford, Connecticut, his mother still carries the burden of the war, as does his grandmother, and Little Dog’s struggles reach not only back to the traumas of Vietnam but forward in his efforts to fit in to a world that sees him as other. Little Dog does eventually have a relationship with an older “redneck” boy, but that is only temporary. His desire to write and his family are what makes him strong. This is an in-depth look at masculinity, art, and opioids. It is frank and often raw but always polishes. We read of the strengths and limitations of human connection and the importance of speaking one’s truth.
The book reads like memoir and book-length poem but it defies a label since it is really about why we need stories in order to survive. It “is an ode to loss and struggle, to being a Vietnamese American, to Hartford, Connecticut, and it’s a compassionate epistolary ode to a mother who may or may not know how to read.”
Vuong examines whether putting words to one’s experience can cover wounds that have lasted for generations, and whether we are ever truly heard by those we love.
Described as literary fiction, but probably auto biographical, we are taken into the world of the other through flashbacks to his childhood when he is bullied at school, physically abused by his mother, protected by his grandmother.
It is also about a love between a mother and son and an intimate portrait of his first relationship as he falls in love with another boy (explicitly depicted). We read of drug addiction, poignant moments reflecting his love of his mother and grandmother. It is an amazing look at the Vietnamese immigrant experience.
The book is divided into three sections, without titles, just Roman numerals. Their themes are obvious— being an immigrant in the US, being gay and death. Once again, the best words to describe this book are raw, visceral and vicious but honestly so. It is that honesty and Vuong’s language that makes this such a beautiful read.