Poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of storytelling
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 unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.
With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.
“Dear Ma,” within the narrator’s head—or it might have been his heart—the name begins tolling, very much like a bell, “I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.” And although he knows his mother is illiterate—her education capped at the age of 5 after a napalm raid destroyed her schoolhouse in Vietnam—and thus, all his hours and pain will be folded in paper and put away, the words kept tumbling out, catching fire as they went.
He is Little Dog—a nickname given to him by his grandmother because “to love something is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched—and alive.” And he is a wound in the fabric of the world, and onto this letter, he is bleeding.
In his first novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”, Vuong assumes the voice of Little Dog, who writes to his mother like being pushed from a great height, tumbling down, snatching at anything that would prevent him from falling. The reader could just imagine her there, hovering just at the edge of remembrance: stooped with decades of working in factories and nail salons, wilting her like an unwatered flower—those places “where dreams become the calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones—with or without citizenship—aching, toxic, and underpaid.” A mother the tighter he gripped, the more she melted away—like trying to hold on to the reflection of the moon. Tenderness, resentment, delight, anger. Little Dog’s voice carried all of it when he said her name. It carried every blow, a shock of bright pain against his skin, and the gentle tales that soothed his fighting soul, and the words struggled with the contradiction. Another figure in the periphery of his vision: a grandmother, trembling with age, whose mind sometimes breaks, all the terrors pouring out, once a teenage bride, escaping an arranged marriage, “her body, her purple dress…[keeping] her alive” as a prostitute for American GIs.
Neither of them whole because no one is ever whole in the aftermath of brutal war and its bloody end.
And in another corner of Little Dog’s mind, creeping farther over it with every page, is Trevor. They met on a summer job on a tobacco barn Trevor’s grandfather owned, and there, they shared the sensation that they were absorbing each other, melting together in an blistering crucible. “Did you ever feel colored-in when a boy found you with his mouth?” But Trevor’s sweet, perishing beauty is withering into earth with every swallow of the painkillers he’s addicted to, lashed to a flood of misery and self-loathing, and theirs was a love affair as brittle and breakable as a twig under ice.
Vuong understands the eloquence of violence, and his words buzz with a red savagery, blooming, drawing as much blood from the story as possible. Whether it’s his nuanced yet viscerally potent exploration of sexuality, or his simmering, mordant probing of family, first love, immigration and fate, his writing is a pleasure to read.
Vuong shows Little Dog’s feelings as water shows ripples, and one can only assume that he must have drawn on some wellspring of sorrow within himself—growing up in America, queer and the son of an immigrant. His narrator, Little Dog, writes as if he is embracing his memories a final time, pressing hard as if to set them into his skin. He writes with the kind of honesty that bypasses language and finds its way into your heart, uncut. His words are sometimes as soft as a shawl that wraps against the cold, but other times, they cut to the quick like the rasp of a whetstone down a blade. Oftentimes, though, the alphabet seems to transmute itself into incoherent pitchforks, wavering as if this were a fraying dream. The result is a book that can’t be described without borrowing some of the author’s own language: “I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck—the pieces floating, lit up, finally legible.”
“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” hit me like the wave hit the shore. I couldn’t stop reading, as if the words were a rope and if I only kept it unbroken I would be held by it, unable to leave—and yet, at the same time, I often grasped for a feeling of escape, a moment to gasp for breath.
With Little Dog’s confessional missive before me, my own childhood’s brutalities shone through as they never had before. So much of what I felt reading Little Dog’s words to his mother—delivered on the page as soon as they felt the brush of the dark, unreal places where pain in a thousand variations and memory mingle—cannot ever crystallize into something small enough for words.
Little Dog writes, each word more desperate than the last, “When does a war end? When can I say your name and have it mean only your name and not what you left behind?” The answer is not as easy as paring rot from fruit. But in his bruised and aching letter, for the space of a few hundred pages, Little Dog stops winging doggedly onwards, dragging the uncertainty of the answer, and lets it all spill out of his body, onto the paper, in search for solace. “I’m breaking us apart again so that I might carry us somewhere else.”
I do not doubt that readers of all sorts will find solace in Vuong’s words, or at the very least, something to connect with in this capaciously moving and ultimately hopeful novel.