‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ captures the pain and beauty of becoming

Wednesday, June 5, 2019 - 5:05pm

The Atlantic

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When I received Ocean Vuong’s debut novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” in the mail, I read the jacket description to my mother immediately. It began, “‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read.” She stopped me there, asking if the book was a first edition, and told me to keep it safe. Even from that one sentence, not even having read the book, my mother knew that Vuong’s writing was special. Having read it, I know that is true, and that his writing is beyond special ― it is a distillation of emotion that only a poet could achieve, capturing the intensity of familial and romantic love in a way that’s nearly impossible to explain. From the first words of the jacket to the last of his acknowledgements, Vuong has created a world of his own within the confines of a novel, pushing his readers so deeply into the experience of his characters that it feels like they’ve lived it themselves.

“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is a book about the immigrant experience, and it is also a book about the queer experience. It is a book about a son’s love for his mother, for his grandmother, for his family’s homeland and the home they built away from it. In another writer’s hands, this would surely be too much to address in one novel. But Vuong, in his first foray into fiction, is more than capable of handling all of these things. In truth, the realities of being human are not easily swallowable, and certainly more complicated than we wish they were. Vuong knows this well and weaves each aspect of his semi-autobiographical story through the lens of personhood, making the big picture distinguishable among its million puzzle pieces.

The book begins at the onset of narrator Little Dog’s childhood, as he collects scattered memories of his mother to share with her. Vuong’s skill as a poet (having won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2017) is immediate in these first pages. Through a mix of abstract description and fleeting emotion, he stabilizes memory despite its ephemeral nature and invites the reader in to remember with him, his mother and his younger self.

“I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because,” Vuong writes, “But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence ― I was trying to break free.” “On Earth” is centered around the confusion of this search for freedom, revealing the interplay between the “why”s and “because”s of a difficult life. He can’t start a sentence with “because,” but Vuong is a master of explanation; even if it isn’t in the way a reader expects.

Though Little Dog is not exactly Vuong, or vice versa, the intimacy between the author and character is palpable. It’s almost like Vuong is trying to describe how his reflection looks in a foxed mirror; there are some parts of Little Dog that are the author completely, but the others are somewhere in the middle of them both.

It’s this foggy quality of memory that colors the entirety of “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” almost like a character of its own. Of course, it affects Little Dog’s memories of his mother, but also her own recollections of her life and those of her mother, too. In a narrative heavy with their family’s story of immigration from Vietnam, this emphasis on memory is also tied to Little Dog’s relationship with a heritage fraught with trauma.

Though the majority of the novel takes place in the ‘90s, the wounds of the Vietnam War remain for Little Dog’s grandmother and mother. They each have yet to recover from the choices they made to make it out of their country, including the white, American men with whom they had children. The novel is a decidedly American coming-of-age novel, set in Connecticut among the cornfields, but rests in an interesting place between tradition and innovation.

Little Dog faces many of the things most children and teenagers do as they grow ― discovering their sexuality, trying to formulate an identity apart from that of their family ― but through a different prism. He swings between the pressures of American society and Vietnamese tradition, between confusion and a hesitant embrace of a same-sex relationship, between the stories that his mother and grandmother have told him and the truth he comes to know.

The period in which “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” takes place during Little Dog’s life is intense for everyone; there is nothing like an identity crisis and a cocktail of near-lethal hormones to make life a confusing, rocky path. Despite its searing pain, Ocean Vuong manages to capture that intensity in a shatteringly beautiful manner, crystallizing his own memories through the poetic, lilting voice of his narrator.

Life is not beautiful, and neither are the events within the pages of this novel. But there is a certain awe that comes in the wake of our worst moments, right alongside the best ones. Vuong’s writing takes this awe captive, using it to shape the reader’s perception of his characters, and then, eventually, their own lives. The novel is a staggering work of both joy and ugliness, as they join hands in an honest celebration of life.