On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeousby Published 04 Jun 2019
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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.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Reviews
Thoughtful and tender, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous meditates on the powers of storytelling. The autobiographical novel’s framed as a letter from a queer Vietnamese son, Little Dog, to his illiterate single mother, Rose. Across three expansive parts Little Dog reflects on his turbulent youth spent in Hartford, Connecticut, and hopes that the act of remembering family history through writing might heal longstanding wounds and bring parent and child closer. Using as guideposts the works of thinkers as diverse as Elaine Scarry and Qiu Miaojin, the narrator roams among a wide array of shared memories, from his mother's harrowing acts of abuse to her infrequent but intense displays of affection. So, too, does Little Dog contemplate the nuances of his relationships with his grandmother, his absentee father, and his first love, and he reckons with how the legacy of the Vietnam War and the experience of immigration impacted his parents and grandparents. Sketching a moving portrait of a fraught bond, Vuong establishes himself as a promising novelist.
“All freedom is relative—you know too well—and sometimes it’s no freedom at all, but simply the cage widening far away from you, the bars abstracted with distance but still there, as when they “free” wild animals into nature preserves only to contain them yet again by larger borders. But I took it anyway, that widening.”
4 1/2 stars. Stunning.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is quite a book. It is not surprising that the author is a poet, as this reads almost like a poetry collection - prose poems, each capturing a moment, a memory, a feeling, or an idea so beautifully. It doesn't follow a regular narrative structure, but is instead a series of snippets or moments. The style won't be for everyone, but for those who love the raw punches of poetry, it is a fantastic book.
I found it difficult to believe this was fiction. There is something about Little Dog's story, a certain raw honesty and earnestness, that seems to come from a place of truth. Maybe because much of it does. The author draws on recent and historical events, stories of well-known figures, artists and tragedies to weave his fictional story with every inch of our reality.
The book is a letter from Little Dog to his illiterate mother. He talks frankly about race, gender, sexuality, masculinity, grief and language, without allowing the book to be overwhelmed by the heavy subject matter. The last one - language - is a major theme, and the author explores the importance of language on both a micro and macro level - the choice of individual words and phrases, and the power (or lack of) bestowed upon an individual by having access to language and literacy.
For such a tiny novel, it is huge in its scope. From the Vietnam War to Barthes to Tiger Woods to 50 Cent to Little Dog's first romance with a white boy, it's somehow both a philosophical book about humanity and language, and a deeply personal bildungsroman.
It is impossible to categorize, but it is undeniably both brief and gorgeous.
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Ocean is a brilliant writer and I am a fan of his work. I even published him once in PANK! It has been thrilling to watch him soar. The prose in this novel is sublime. The way he writes is just… exquisite. He writes the body so well. He writes about the complicated relationship between a mother and son with real tenderness, with compelling honesty. He writes sex better than almost anyone out there. There are so many lines that gutted me or exhilarated me or stunned me. I wanted to sit with each line and just feel it as deeply as I could. The intimacy of the novel as a letter between a son and mother was poignant. That said, I just didn’t fall in love with this book. The prose was, perhaps, too beautiful, too resonant, without enough story behind it. That is a personal preference, the desire for story. As I got deeper into the novel, I kept wanting a clearer sense of where the story was going, I wanted to feel like there was more substance to hold all that style. I do still recommend this novel because I've never read anything like it.
This is such a beautiful book title and it was the title that drew me to read the description and request a copy of it. Not only is the title beautiful, but much of the writing here is as well. It’s described as literary fiction, but a brief look at Ocean Vuong’s bio after I read this book made the biographical nature of the story striking. This letter from a young Vietnamese immigrant to his mother who doesn’t know how to read is raw, impactful, achingly sad, painful to read. It is filled with flashbacks to his childhood when he is bullied at school, physically abused by his mother, protected by his grandmother. It is filled with stories and memories of his mother and grandmother’s past fleeing Vietnam as their pasts become part of his story.
It is about a love between a mother and son. It is a story of a young boy trying to find his place in this country. It’s an intimate portrait of his first relationship as he falls in love with another boy. (A warning to those who might be bothered by explicit sex scenes. You’ll find them here.) The vivid descriptions of the times he spent in the nail salon where his mother worked were eye opening. There’s drug addiction. There are also poignant moments reflecting his love of his mother and grandmother. The stream of consciousness felt a bit disjointed in last part feeling more like random thoughts , and it lacked the cohesiveness of the earlier part for me., thus 4 instead of 5 stars. This book is not for everyone, but it’s worth reading for the beautiful language and amazing portrait of the Vietnamese immigrant experience, for the intimate piece of his heart and soul that this writer shares .
I received an advanced copy of this book from Penguin Press through Edelweiss.
Books by poets always have the best titles, don’t they? On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous , acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, takes the form of a letter from Little Dog to his mother, both Vietnamese refugees now living in the U.S. This poignant, lyrical story more than delivers on the promise of that striking title.
“Because gunshots, lies, and oxtail—or whatever you want to call your god—should say Yes over and over, in cycles, in spirals, with no other reason but to hear itself exist. Because love, at its best, repeats itself. Shouldn’t it?”
It is an emotionally affecting tale wrought with a poet’s artistry. Little Dog translating for his mother on their awkward outings together; his grandmother’s experiences during the war in Vietnam (“I did what any mother would do, I made a way to eat. Who can judge me, huh? Who?”); Little Dog’s first love and adolescent fumblings with farm boy Trevor. I was glued to the page, though it isn’t what you would normally call a page-turner. Violence and trauma permeate throughout, and this does not make for an ‘easy’ read, yet I could not put it down. There are also many tender moments, and even humour too.
Little Dog’s relationship with his mother is not the sole focus – rather this is a coming-of-age (and coming-out) story, woven with family history. Little Dog’s knowledge that his mother, with her limited education & grasp of English, will never read his words frees up the narrative and allows Vuong to deviate from the second-person voice when the story requires it.
The many moving and memorable scenes don’t quite cohere the way a more traditional novel would. Figurative language abounds, much of it stunning, but the odd passage jarred and jolted me out of the narrative (“Then his eyelashes. You could hear them think”). Vuong’s portrait of Little Dog, Hong and Lan is overlaid with a filigree of intricate prose: the effect is pretty, but it makes it difficult to see them clearly, a fact made more frustrating by the utterly compelling nature of their stories.
Some essayistic digressions are slightly incongruous. The first, about Tiger Woods’ family history, draws out connections to Little Dog’s story, exploring racial identity in the American context, and Woods’ father’s involvement in the Vietnam war. The second, a series of factoids about Purdue Pharma, provides background to the opioid crisis that devastates Little Dog’s social circle, but its insertion feels unnecessary: this is information most readers will already know.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a novel that asserts itself defiantly – to take exception with its many idiosyncrasies feels churlish. As Vuong plays with language and syntax in order to blend poetic and novelistic techniques, he blurs the boundaries between the two forms. Someone who reads more poetry than I do would surely find it easier to embrace. As for myself, I found it to be frequently, if somewhat inconsistently, gorgeous. 4 stars