ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS
by Ocean Vuong
Penguin Press, 256 pages
reviewed by Claire Kooyman
Whether we want to or not, we are traveling in a spiral, we are creating something new from what is gone. —Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Ocean Vuong’s writing is steeped in memories, the history of which sometimes precedes him chronologically. This was true of his poetry in the collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds, and it is also true of his first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, recently released by Penguin Press. This novel is a recursive exploration of the path memories take through a family. The narrator’s life is impacted by the traumas his mother and grandmother suffered before he was born. As a very young child, Vuong’s narrator, Little Dog, learns quickly that not all authority figures can be trusted absolutely, and that even unconditional love has flaws. Throughout the novel, Vuong illustrates that we are all sharing space with the past, even as we exist in the present.
Little Dog (a nickname given to Vuong’s narrator by his grandmother as a way to make him seem less enticing to evil spirits who might steal him) writes to his mother as a way to confess and relate to her as an adult. His mother knows few words in her native Vietnamese or in English and cannot read, so she will never know what he is saying. The epistolary style of the novel, then, is ironic. Perhaps Little Dog knows that this is the only way he can explain himself to his mother, even if she will never understand; this style allows the narrator to express freely what they cannot discuss face-to-face. He brings up things his mother might not understand, like the racial heritage of American celebrities, and things too painful to discuss, even with time behind them. Even if most readers can’t directly relate to Little Dog’s Vietnamese immigrant heritage or the challenges of being gay, many children and parents feel unable to truly express themselves to the other, even without the burden of language standing in the way. This novel is like a book of secrets your mother or son might never tell you.
As a reader, one might question whether On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a novel at all. The writing fluidly switches from more traditional storytelling to something that resembles Vuong’s poetry. Is this a novel-length poem, or a novel written like poetry? He uses line breaks that a prose editor might assume were typos in a different work:
For summer. For your hands
were wet and Trevor’s a name like an engine starting up in the night. Who snuck out to meet a boy like you. Yellow and barely there.
This passage about what Trevor is to Little Dog blends the best of poetry and prose beautifully. He disregards paragraphs and narrative for strong images and emotion; faced with white space, we linger on Little Dog’s hands reaching for Trevor the way that the narrator himself does in his memory. We feel the time he spent with Trevor, without it being explained to us in longform.
Vuong’s speedy switching between topics also evokes his poetry. Much of this novel reminds me of his poem, Aubade with Burning City—not just because it deals with fallout from the Vietnam War, but because of the stylistic way Vuong approaches his material. He approaches the themes of war, identity, and belonging from many angles, shows us the individual threads, and then weaves them together until the reader sees it was always one large tapestry. From “Aubade with Burning City:
Milkflower petals on the street
……………………………………………..like pieces of a girl’s dress.
May your days be merry and bright …
He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
………………Open, he says.
The juxtaposed images found in this poem (milkflower petals, pieces of fabric, the bubbling teacup) are like the many disparate topics of Little Dog’s letters: Tiger Woods’s undiscussed Asian heritage, his grandfather’s significance in his life, his agreement with his mother about how hard it is to be different in America. In the novel, the sections are broken up by the different subject matter. But then, the themes coalesce: in both the novel and the poem, the present American influence is linked to mistrust and racism. Tiger Woods is part Asian, and a product of the Vietnam War—and Paul, Little Dog’s grandfather, is connected to him solely because of war, too. Much of the novel does this: takes disparate pieces and slowly pushes them together, until the reader can see the similarities.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous follows Little Dog as he grapples with his family’s identity, and the identity of being Vietnamese in a culture that attempted to destroy Vietnam. As if that weren’t enough, he also struggles to come to terms with being gay during the nineteen-nineties. His relationship with Trevor echoes his grandmother and grandfather’s during the Vietnam War: an interracial relationship with shame, remixed for the modern era. Like Little Dog, Trevor has pieces of himself that feel impossible to reconcile. Home is not a refuge for him; Trevor’s alcoholic father represents the popular opinion of a country and culture that do not understand either them, or gay sub-culture. Little Dog writes:
I did not know then what I know now: to be an American boy, and then an American boy with a gun, is to move from one end of a cage to another.
In the third section of the novel, an adult Little Dog returns to where he grew up to attend a funeral. In this portion, he also discusses the death of his grandmother, and the return of her ashes to Vietnam. Again, we see Vuong approaching the same theme from a different angle: many versions of the word home are returned to in this section—literally, the physical locations of Little Dog’s own home, and Vietnam, the original home of his family, and, less tangibly, the concept of home, of memory. He repeatedly says, “I remember the table” in this third section—sometimes referring to specific tables from his memory, and sometimes just discussing the idea of constructing, or reconstructing a memory.
Little Dog reminds us that memory is an active process, like art. Neither exists in a vacuum, but both are instead little universes unto themselves that are actively created by individuals with pasts. With much effort and introspection on Vuong’s part, they flicker, alive for a moment: briefly gorgeous in the mind of the reader.
Claire Kooyman lives in Boulder, Colorado with her cats, Tom and Finn. She graduated from University of Colorado Boulder in 2018 with a degree in creative writing. She was recently published for the first time in Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk. She enjoys the view of the mountains from her balcony, and the sound of geese flying overhead.