“Let me begin again”. With this phrase, Ocean Vuong, introduces his debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. But how do I begin? After reading Vuong’s epistolary novel, I am struggling to find the words that would help me express my thoughts on this book, simply because he manages to play and experiment with language, manipulate and control words in a way I have never encountered before. Let me begin again.
Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese-American poet, first acclaimed international fame in 2017 with the publication of his debut poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which won the Forward Poetry Prize and the TS Eliot Prize. His mother the child of a Vietnamese woman and a US soldier, Vuong was born on a rice farm outside Saigon in 1988. After spending a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines, Vuong and his mother immigrated to the US when he was two years old. Having an illiterate mother, being bullied in school, being different, alien, queer, beaten up, Vuong explores race, class, and masculinity in a deeply shattered American society.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is written in the form of a letter from a son to his mother who cannot read. The son, also known as Little Dog, mirrors Ocean Vuong and unveils his family’s history that began before he was born, in Vietnam. As Little Dog’s grandmother marries a white American soldier and gives birth to his mother Rose, the war and its consequences become a doorway to a new life in the US . At the age of five, Rose’s schoolhouse in Vietnam collapsed during an American napalm raid, which is why Little Dog’s mother is illiterate and suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder. Arriving in America, Rose struggles to survive as a single mother living in Hartford, Connecticut. Little Dog, his mother Rose, and his grandmother Lan are refugees in a country that entered the Second Indochina War and killed millions of civilians in their country of origin, Vietnam. Little Dog begins to learn English, primarily to help his mother and grandmother. Working at a tobacco farm one summer, Little Dog meets Trevor, a young white man, whose father is abusive and an alcoholic. The differences that seem to separate them do not stop them from beginning a romantic relationship.
Sometimes being offered tenderness feels like the very proof that you’ve been ruined.page 119
The novel shocks its reader with its brutal honesty, detailed accounts and merciless analysis of life in the US, as Vuong captures prevailing conflicts and consequences of the Vietnam war. Litte Dog grows up in a poor neighbourhood and supplies his readers with meticulous descriptions of his childhood and teenage years that make you close the book for a moment because you have to absorb what you just read. Gunshots at night, gunshots at day. A dead man who lived on Little Dog’s floor and who was only found because of the stench. Racist laughter at a mother who cannot speak English and tries to buy meat at the supermarket to make a Vietnamese dish. Trevor who broke his ankle when he was 15 and went to the hospital where he was put on OxyContin, an opioid. Trevor who, by the time is ankle healed, was a full-blown addict and eventually died from an overdose years later. Trevor who is one of many victims of the opioid epidemic in the US. Although this is a fiction novel, parts of it remind of an autobiography, because Vuong’s writing is so genuine, substantial, and remorselessly real.
The biggest strength of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is its language. The poetical play with a language that can both create bridges and cause their collapse makes the novel appear like a book-long poem. Vuong’s language evokes images and connections that leave you inarticulate. Little Dog’s portrayal of lovemaking with Trevor catches glimpses of tenderness and passion in a rock-hard environment. The description of the smell of salty skin, tobacco plants, Sprite and Burger King make you feel like you were the one sitting in the car next to Trevor. The depiction of the view over the city at night that makes you wonder whoever called the night “dark” is forever stuck in my head. The way moments like these are written is what makes this novel stand out and had me rereading phrases again and again.
Yes, there was a war. Yes, we came from its epicenter. In that war, a woman gifted herself a name- Lan- in that naming claimed herself beautiful, then made that beauty into something worth keping. From that, a daugther was born, and from that daughter, a son. All this time I told myself we were born from war- but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty.page 231
As On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a book-long letter written to a mother who cannot read, I was having a hard time getting into it. Little Dog’s mother is illiterate, therefore the disrupted narrative is not going to be read by the person it is addressed to, making it appear unresponsive. At points, I felt like I was reading an ever-repeating monologue or an endless stream of consciousness, which made me as the reader feel passive. The fragmentation of the novel adds to its complexity which is why I was lost at times, trying to stick together different accounts of the past, different accounts of three generations, all brought to us through the eyes of Little Dog.
Nevertheless, the strong points of the book outweigh this aspect. Vuong shows that language connects and disconnects us. The novel’s fragmentation and alienation add to the point that the history of Little Dog’s family and his experience of growing up as a Vietnamese-American boy in the US was indeed fragmented, disjointed and stuck together by small, brief moments on this earth. After all the violence, trauma and grief, Vuong captures moments of real beauty and compassion proving that happiness can be found. It may be brief, but it is real.
Hardback, 242 pages