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

On Earth We're Briefly GorgeousON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong
Published by Penguin Press on June 4, 2019

My Rating: ★★★★

Everyone who’s read this book always remarks on the language first, and now I know why. Vuong’s command of language is simply astounding; I’ve never read anything like it before. Written in the form of a letter to his mother who can’t read, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous follows its narrator, known only as Little Dog, over three significant developmental periods in his life: his childhood, where he grapples with the aftermath of the Vietnam War on his family and his fraught relationship with his mother; his late teenage years, where he explores his sexuality with Trevor, the “redneck” son of the tobacco plantation owner; and his young adulthood, during which he comes into his own as a writer.

While these parts are loosely connected by developmental timeframe, there isn’t much ‘plot’ to the novel—in fact, On Earth reads more like a memoir than a novel, with events presented as fragments of fact or memory that aren’t arranged in strict chronological order. At first, I wasn’t sure if this structure would work, but it ended up being the best structure accommodate Vuong’s style. Reading each scene in On Earth felt like moving through a series of stills rather than watching a movie, and each scene is so rich in imagery and metaphor that I found myself slowing down to savour each page.

I can’t emphasize enough how utterly blown away I was by the language. Every sentence here felt deliberate, every metaphor original; Vuong never resorts to using clichéd formulations in describing anything, even scenes that can easily slide into melodrama. For example, here’s how he describes the physical violence he experienced in his mother’s hands:

The first time you hit me, I must have been four. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My mouth a blaze of touch.

The time you threw a box of Legos at my head. The hardwood dotted with blood.

And here is his attempt to understand her:

I didn’t know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves—but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son. Boom.

It’s difficult to lift anything else, because Vuong writes his novel in such a way that the fragments build on metaphors found in the fragments before, so to pluck one out of context would rob it of its emotional resonance. So I’ll just say it again: the language is breathtakingly, achingly gorgeous. Many times I’d be so awed by a sentence or a fragment that I’d just clutch my Nook to my chest in speechless admiration. Either that, or I’d stop myself from highlighting entire pages, because if I don’t I’d end up highlighting the entire book.

(An aside: While I admire the language, this doesn’t mean that I always “get” it. I often find myself going from “Wow” to “Huh?” at the end of a sentence. For example, when the narrator describes his sexual relationship with Trevor, he says:

And what do you to do a boy like that but turn yourself into a doorway, a place he can go through again and again, each time entering the same room? Yes, I wanted it all. I drove my face into him as if into a climate, the autobiography of a season. Until I was numb.

I was with him until room, but I got lost at the climate part, and was just confused with the ‘autobiography of a season’ part. This was also how I felt when I read Vuong’s poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016)—I was alternately awed and confused by it. Then again, maybe I’m just too literal-minded for poetry.)

All this beauty is made more poignant considering that On Earth is a letter to his mother, who can’t read or even speak English well. For me, this shows both his intense yearning to communicate with his mother and the impossibility of bridging the gulf between them. This is a dilemma that many second and third-generation immigrants face—parents often migrate to provide their children with better lives, but the better their lives become (i.e., the more educated and acculturated they become), the more tenuous the link to their parents and culture-of-origin, an ambiguity captured by these lines:

What is a country but a borderless sentence, a life? . . .

What is a country but a life sentence?

In the case of Vuong’s narrator, this gulf between him and his mother, motherland, and mother tongue widens the more adept he becomes with English. He may be able to make sense of his identity and his family’s history, but his mother is unable to make sense of her own son. The burden falls on him to understand her:

The monarchs that fly south will not make it back north. Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return; only the future revisits the past.

Hannah @ Books and Bakes mentioned before that the compassionate portrayal of difficult relationships in this novel reminds her of Jenny Offill’s Weather, and I agree with her. The narrator’s mother lashes out at him in anger very often, both verbally and physically. She seems to know it herself, because at one point, she says, “I’m not a monster. I’m a mother.” And yet, the narrator tries his best to understand her, and even when she doesn’t always say sorry—she only gives him approximations of an apology, like bringing him to McDonald’s after she hits him—he forgives her.

The other relationship in the novel, the one between the narrator and Trevor, a white boy, is portrayed in a similarly tender manner. One can argue that Trevor is deeply flawed—for one, despite their sexual relationship, he’s also deeply homophobic, which leads him to treating Little Dog with casual cruelty—but still Little Dog gives us glimpses into his humanity, and how he tries to be kind despite the way his racist and sexist father raised him. Other people have commented that there seemed to be a lot of explicit sex in this part, I thought it was still very beautifully written. Plus, I appreciated the messy and realistic way that they both navigated sex and their bodies:

A Band-Aid, loosened from sweat and heat, hung from his elbow, its plastic film scraping my ribs as he climbed on top of me, searching. Under my fingers, the stretch marks above his knees, his shoulders, and the base of his spine shone silver and new. He was a boy breaking out and into himself at once. That’s what I wanted—not merely the body, desirable as it was, but its will to grow into the very world that rejects its hunger. Then I wanted more, the scent, the atmosphere of him . . .

I can go on and on about this novel. It packs a lot of substance for its short length—it looks into migration, family, trauma, and war; sexuality and identity; and beauty and mortality—and it explores these topics in nuanced ways, without ever sounding preachy. My only quibble is that I found myself wishing that it had more story to accompany the exquisite style, and as the novel went on, I had the feeling that narrative verve was sacrificed for carefully polished prose, but this might just be because I prefer a strong and dynamic voice in first-person narratives.

On the whole, Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a poignant and stunning debut. I’d recommend it not only to anyone interested in the Vietnam War and fiction by a queer writer of color, but also to anyone who loves language. I will likely purchase a physical copy of this book, too, and read it again; I feel like it’s the kind of book that can only get better with subsequent rereads. A high 4 out of 5 stars.

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from May 8-9, 2020

20 thoughts on “Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

  1. Great review!! I love your comment about needing to stop yourself from highlight the entire book – I felt this way too! I was even blown away by the parts that I didn’t quite “get” (and I definitely didn’t get all of it, either) – the writing was just so beautiful. I’m glad you enjoyed this book so much!!

  2. I really enjoyed this one too – love your review and totally agree about the beautiful way he employs language – there’s such a musicality to it. I also felt some of the metaphors and prose was a little inscrutable at times, but on the whole it felt accessible, which is such an accomplishment. I need to get a copy of his poetry collection!

    1. Inscrutable is the right word for it! I browsed through his collection again before writing the review and realized that some lines from the titular poem, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, appeared in the novel (eg Say amen. Say amend). It would be interesting to consider them side by side!

  3. I really enjoyed this book and your review here is excellent. It can be a difficult one to summarise because, as you say, there’s a lack of the usual novel structure, but you’ve picked out poignant moments really well and touched on the different strands of identity the author imbues into this work. The language in this book honestly makes me feel it is a work of poetry rather than prose, I’m glad you were similarly blown away by it.

    Fab review! I’m also going to check out that book ‘Weather’ that you linked as it looks right up my street!

    1. Thank you, Rabeeah! And I agree that Vuong feels more like a poet than a novelist. The language is just so exquisite, and I’m glad to hear you’ve enjoyed it as well. Weather is similar also in style, but funnier, I’d say. Hope you’ll like it too! 🙂

  4. I love that the narrator’s name is Little Dog. It puts me in two minds, thinking that “dog” is a slander when used in certain ways, but “little” denotes innocence and frailty. You put them together, and “little dog” makes me think of a scrappy, determined creature that won’t stop due to its big heart.

    1. Exactly!!! I love it so much for the same reason, too. It sounds very affectionate, and is quite fitting for the narrator. I also feel a totally irrational connection to him because my Chinese zodiac is dog, lol. I don’t believe in it but for some reason I remember it every time I see Little Dog.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with this review! The way Vuong portrays these complicated relationships, both with the mother and the lover, is so beautiful and heartbreaking. There are some really terrible moments and yet you never hate either character because they feel so real and complicated. I often felt like I was reading someone’s diary.

    1. You’re right about not hating any character—I actually felt sympathetic towards the mother. The most affecting moments were when she bought that secondhand dress, or when she sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to the narrator while he was having a panic attack.

      1. Oh yes, those were beautiful moments! Vuong does such an excellent job at showing how traumatized she’s been that you do feel sympathetic for her.

  6. For me, the writing somewhat overwhelmed this one – I agree that it was beautiful but I wished that there was more to the novel itself.

    1. I can see that—Vuong is obviously a poet before a novelist, and this really read more like a memoir (and I heard was initially conceived of as a memoir). Maybe we’ll see in his next novel if his style will change.

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