On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Published by Penguin Press
Publication date: June 4, 2019
On Wednesday I reviewed a book that I liked, but thought others might find too odd. I have the same hesitation today, but for a different reason. Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is itself a thing of beauty. His writing is poetical prose. Not surprising, because he is a poet. The novel is ruminations on his life in the form of a letter written to a mother who can’t read. My concern is that summer means fast paced, high-octane novels to a lot of readers, so On Earth will get skipped over. It is slow down, sink-in reading with sentences that have to be absorbed.
The narrator goes by his nickname, Little Dog—given to him by his Vietnamese mother to show the evil spirits he was of no consequence, so they wouldn’t steal him away. She is a survivor of the Vietnam War and comes to America in 1990 with Little Dog, her grandmother, and sister. He’s 28 now and on his own, but has reached a point in his life where he feels he must share with her his experiences and memories, partly for her sake, but largely so he can make sense of them. We pass through his childhood, as the interpreter in his family, to his teenage years, working on a tobacco farm in Connecticut where he meets a white boy and falls in love. Landing finally on the writer he is now, a man whose education, aspirations, and sexuality make him a foreigner in his own family.
Vuong threads American culture through this novel that straddles two worlds. There is the confusion Little Dog feels over his ethnicity, so he draws from the ambiguity of the wildly popular Tiger Woods, whose name came from the North Vietnamese commander who fought alongside Tiger’s father. Here Little Dog can find solidarity and someone to look up to. In his contemporary life is the all-too-real opioid crisis. He watches it sweep through his high school friends and then sees it continue to decimate the community he lives in now.
There is a plot in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, but it is secondary to the inner story of Little Dog. A young Vietnamese man raised by a single mother who indoctrinates him into the twisted world of equating pain with love. She’s been beaten so she lashes out at him without warning from the time he is a little boy. When he makes his first forays into love at 17 he asks his partner to choke him to hurt him. It’s all he knows. In this way, On Earth, feels like A Little Life, but with much less graphic detail and violence. They are both intimately written stories of the lost loneliness found in being different and having no sense of self-worth. Of the kind of life that is going on all around us, but at the very edges so it’s blurred and often invisible. It may not be the standard summer fare, but this small novel is not one to miss.
Because freedom, writes the poet Bei Dao, while in exile, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and the prey.