‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong ****

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was a highly anticipated novel for me. I very much enjoyed his lyrical and fraught debut poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, upon reading it back in 2018, and Vuong has been on my author radar ever since. This, his first novel, has been declared a ‘marvel’ by Marlon James, and Celeste Ng calls it ‘luminous, shattering, urgent, necessary.’

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous takes the form of a letter, written to an illiterate mother by her son. Its speaker, known throughout as Little Dog, is in his late twenties; the letter which he pours his heart and soul into ‘unearths a family’s history that began before he was born.’ The novel ‘serves as a doorway’ into elements of his life which he has never revealed to his mother, including his sexuality and bewilderment at life.

Little Dog’s letter begins: ‘I am writing to reach you – even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.’ He goes on to explain something of himself: ‘I am twenty-eight years old, 5ft 4in tall, 112 lbs. I am handsome at exactly three angles and deadly from everywhere else. I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son.’ Later, he reveals the following: ‘… the very impossibility of you reading this is all that makes my telling it possible.’

As in Vuong’s poetry, central themes here are the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and the difficulties which can come with resettling in a new and different culture – Hartford in the US state of Connecticut, in this case. Much social commentary upon the present day is offered, intertwined with memories of when Little Dog was small, and dependent. He reveals what he learnt about the struggles which his mother had as a young woman in Vietnam, and the terror which she had to live with for years. He reconciles the way in which he was shielded from most of this, but how the decision also profoundly affected him.

Little Dog writes, very early on, about a time when he was five or six years old, and leapt out at his mother during a game, shouting ‘Boom!’. The reaction which his mother gave is strong, and vivid: ‘You screamed, face raked and twisted, then burst into sobs, clutched your chest as you leaned against the door, gasping. I stood bewildered, my toy army helmet tilted on my head. I was an American boy parroting what I saw on TV. 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.’

There is so much pain here, and an incredible amount of rawness. The trauma is often difficult to read, and certain scenes were almost too graphic for this sensitive reader. There is a great deal of violence within On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and much of this takes place within domestic settings. Little Dog writes, for instance, ‘The first time you hit me, I must have been four. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My mouth a blaze of touch.’

Vuong writes this novel as a poet; his prose is melodic, even when describing times of trauma, and not a single word is wasted. Vuong’s language is rich, creative, sensual, and unusual. The structure which has been chosen – the main form of a letter, comprised of many vignettes which denote a particular place, time, or situation – works wonderfully. It allows Vuong to explore Little Dog coming to terms with his identity, and his place in America, and away from Vietnam. The letter itself, written to a mother who will not be able to access it, is something of a cathartic exercise, revealing Little Dog and all of his vulnerabilities, but also offering him a shade of protection from the person whom he is most afraid of showing himself to.

Vuong’s prose is both beautiful and searching. When describing a poignant moment in which Little Dog looks in the mirror, hoping to discover something of himself, he writes the following: ‘Who was he? I touched the face, its sallow cheeks. I felt my back, the braid of muscles sloped to collarbones that jutted into stark ridges. The scraped-out ribs sunken as the skin tried to fill its irregular gaps, the sad little heart rippling underneath like a trapped fish. The eyes that wouldn’t match, one too open, the other closed, slightly lidded, cautious of whatever light was given it. It was everything I hid from, everything that made me want to be a sun, the only thing I knew that had no shadow. And yet, I stayed. I let the mirror hold those flaws – because for once, drying, they were not wrong to me but something that was wanted, that was sought and found among a landscape as enormous as the one I had been lost in all this time.’

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is tender and heartfelt. There is so much emotion suffused within its pages; it is a triumph. Vuong’s narrative holds a great deal of wisdom, and many of his carefully crafted sentences make one stop and think. The novel is a memorable one; I am sure that I will be thinking about it for months to come.

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