Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

I’m not sure if there’s any one word to accurately encapsulate the scope of this breathtaking work by Ocean Vuong. It is all at once prose, poetry…or maybe just the mind and heart and soul mixing together and spilling out onto pages.

“I am thinking of beauty again, how some things are hunted because we have deemed them beautiful. If, relative to the history of our planet, an individual life is so short, a blink of an eye, then to be gorgeous, even from the day you’re born to the day you die, is to be gorgeous only briefly.”

Goodreads summary:

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 his 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.”

[SPOILERS Ahead]

Rating/Review:

4.5/5

I’m not sure if there’s any one word to accurately encapsulate the scope of this breathtaking work by Ocean Vuong. It is all at once prose, poetry…or maybe just the mind and heart and soul mixing together and spilling out onto pages.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter, one that the recipient will never read, one that instead is handed to us strangers to pore over. I felt, reading it, that I was not warranted this privilege, that I was looking into something so intensely private, that these words were a delicate thing I could break if I didn’t treat it with tenderness. This letter is written by Little Dog to his mother, who fled war-torn Vietnam with her family and settled into Hartford, Connecticut. Now an adult, Little Dog recounts his experiences coming of age as a child of immigration, as a gay man, as a person trying to rise from the brokenness that is weeded in him and his family and his friends, that is ubiquitous in the world around him.

What makes this story feel so close and vulnerable is the way it dips into different styles without restraint. It drops from prose into poetry, into textbook-like passages, addresses “you,” his mother, but then “you,” himself. In this way, Vuong is unafraid; he peels back any shields between Little Dog’s heart and the reader; all you’re left with is the rawness of it. This purely unique [non-style] style is bold. It says: I’m here. See me, all of me, and accept me.

On Earth takes on many themes, tangled together and inseparable: war, PTSD, mental illness, sexuality, poverty, immigration, ethnicity, race, biracialism, drugs, domestic abuse, child abuse, illness, violence, family…These themes shape Little Dog and the people around him, who in turn shape Little Dog themselves; you see that these experiences are part of him and who he becomes; and yet you get the sense that he learns to take those that involve grief and destruction—brokenness—into his own hands and mold himself. That is the triumph of the story.

“Yes, there was a war. Yes, we came from its epicenter. In that war, a woman gifted herself a new name—Lan—in that naming claimed herself beautiful, then made that beauty into something worth keeping. From that, a daughter 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.

Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence—but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.”

And the book reveals this beauty, which peeks from the cracks between the violence that attempts to smother joy and happiness. There are moments of love, and glee, and tenderness that ultimately defeat the violence. A tiny ragtag group of fighters against a vast army, and yet it wins, and triumphs, and that joy clings on you relentlessly. It wins.

I’m not qualified to speak on most of the experiences that Vuong details in his work—first, because every person’s experience is uniquely different from the next, but also because I simply have never gone through myself much of what Vuong describes. However, I will say this: Vuong writes every moment so intimately, and through this I was able to learn to some extent of what certain experiences might feel like, which is a sign of masterful writing.

And in turn, even where my identity converges with Little Dog’s—Asian American, grew up in Connecticut—we are on opposite sides of the coin, my own experiences contrasting sharply with his. There are things I know, with my different but parallel experience a sibling to his: the pain of being different, the language barriers, the shields within the family and yet the closeness with which we all hold one another (parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents), being the child of immigrants. Then there are things I have only ever seen in other people, standing close by maybe, but still standing apart on my pedestal of privilege:

“What I know is that the nail salon is more than a place of work and workshop for beauty, it is also a place where our children are raised—a number of whom, like cousin Victor, will get asthma from years of breathing the noxious fumes into their still-developing lungs…It’s a makeshift classroom where we arrive, fresh off the boat, the plane, the depths, hoping the salon would be a temporary stop—until we get on our feet, or rather, until our jaws soften around English syllables—bend over workbooks at manicure desks, finishing homework for nighttime ESL classes that cost a quarter of our wages.”

The way Little Dog describes Hartford and its surrounding towns reminds me of a scene in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, in which the eponymous character is discussing her hometown. (Sister Sarah-Joan: “You clearly love Sacramento.” Lady Bird: “I do?” Sister Sarah-Joan: “Well, you write about Sacramento so affectionately, and with such care.” Lady Bird: “I was just describing it.” Sister Sarah-Joan: “It comes across as love.” Lady Bird: “Sure, I guess I pay attention.”) There is something to be said about meaning, needing, to escape from the suffocating places we come from, and yet we can’t help but hold a tenderness in our hearts for them, the places we are shaped and built and formed into beings from.

“In the Hartford I grew up in and the one you grow old in, we greet one another not with ‘Hello’ or ‘How are you?’ but by asking, our chins jabbing the air, ‘What’s good?’ I’ve heard this said in other parts of the country, but in Hartford, it was pervasive. Among those hollowed-out boarded buildings, playgrounds with barbed-wire fences so rusted and twisted out of shape they were like something made out of nature, organic as vines, we made a lexicon for ourselves. A phrase used by the economic losers, it can also be heard in East Hartford and New Britain, where entire white families, the ones some call trailer trash, crammed themselves on half-broken porches in mobile parks and HUD housing, their faces OxyContin-gaunt under cigarette smoke, illuminated by flashlights hung by fishing lines in lieu of porch lights, howling, ‘What’s good?’ as you walked by.”

There is so much of the Connecticut Vuong describes that I know intimately. I know the long stretches of fields, the empty places by the highway, the blinking traffic lights on Main Streets at midnight. He’s been able to put into words the scenes that have passed by the car window I’ve stared out of for fourteen years. And yet I know nothing of what Vuong details in this passage on Hartford (which extends much longer than what I’ve just quoted, which is all of it a masterpiece). I only know the idyllic small town where I come from where we can look away, where at night we return to the quiet neighborhoods of our suburbia and close our eyes and never see the brokenness. I am the one Vuong writes of when he says,

“Where the Bushnell theatre, the Wadsworth Atheneum…were visited mostly by outsiders from the suburbs, who park their cars valet and hurry into the warm and auditorium halogens before driving home to sleepy towns flushed with Pier 1 Imports and Whole Foods.”

In this aspect, On Earth forces the lids open of us who have so stubbornly kept our eyes closed so we can stay comfortable and content and naïve.

The strongest point of this book is simply in its writing. Every observation made of the world and humans and how creatures operate is true and real, and yet feels like a revelation each time. Every word is intentional, and it merges with others to create phrases and sentences and paragraphs, until it flows into the story that comes out of the page and into life. It is poetic and lyrical, and much of it figurative.

This, too, is where I struggled. The story is structured as vignettes, fragments of time, that are mixed so that the reader doesn’t follow Little Dog’s coming of age chronologically. In doing so, Vuong is able to make connections more apparent, yet it took me awhile to get into the rhythm of the story, as I spent much of the beginning feeling disconnected from the characters, and trying to divine the meaning of the figurative language and metaphors, trying to figure out what was real and what wasn’t, what was happening when and where. Soon, though, the writing and the story completely captured me; I couldn’t help but be engrossed by it, to fall into it entirely. The long passages, especially, where events just unfold and the descriptions flow—many of them the scenes that involve Trevor—were those that most built Little Dog’s world around me. In all, there isn’t really anything that can be said on Vuong’s writing; it can only be properly known through reading it oneself. Any proxy descriptors are inadequate.

I feel honored to have been able to learn the story of Little Dog, Rose, Lan, Trevor. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a crucial OwnVoices story detailing the coming of age of a queer Vietnamese American, as well as the stories of those in his life. In short, it is a masterpiece.

“To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”

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Author: april | lostinthebookstacks

hello! i'm april (she/her), an asian american reader who’s passionate about words and scallion pancakes.

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