Paperback review by Anna Hollingsworth
One way for a book to land a blow is to describe dark, brutal matters but to dress them in a language that is the polar opposite in its lightness and beauty. Ocean Vuong’s semiautobiographical debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is one of those.
The novel is a letter from Little Dog to his illiterate Ma, Hong, “even if every word I put down is one word further from where you are.” In his late twenties, Little Dog weaves his family history from the time before he was born through his childhood to what has become of them all now. The family — Little Dog, Ma, grandmother Lan, aunt Mai, and a nameless father who only makes brief violent appearances — are refugees from Vietnam to Hartford, Connecticut. Their new American life ebbs and flows between the joys of mayonnaise and white bread, and the pain of toxic chemicals and muscle stiffness from working in nail salons. The narratives swims cyclically through time, suspended between these extremes.
Vietnam is always present in the home. Little Dog’s childhood is marked by his mother’s abrupt bursts of violence, followed by periods of happiness: shopping for fine chocolates and mood rings can be suddenly disrupted by post-traumatic stress set off by fireworks.
Apart from the psychological reactions to trauma, their past lives are explored through Lan’s more or less reliable stories, where the fears of civilians — and women in particular — shine through the near-mythical narratives. We witness her arranged marriage at 17, escape and subsequent prostitution, and ultimately a love story with a US soldier and its complex aftermath.
Outside of the home it is not Vietnam, though, but Little Dog’s love for Trevor that defines the narrative. The teenagers meet when Little Dog takes up a job picking tobacco, and their camaraderie soon grows into sex, love and a joint search for identity, sexual and otherwise. In many ways the adventures and shared nights surrounded by harvested tobacco remind me of Elio and Oliver’s tentative relationship in Call Me By Your Name. Little Dog and Trevor’s story is darker than the one basking under the Italian sun, though, marked by drugs and the opioid crisis, reaping victims like the tobacco workers pick leaves.
Vuong is a poet — his 2016 collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds also tackles family history and the Vietnam War — and that background is reflected in his prose. It’s a descriptive delight in its lyrical ways: “you could hear them think”, he writes of eyelashes, and drag queens performing after a stranger’s death in Vietnam become “unicorns stamping in a graveyard”. The novel is weaved from segments that repeat, disappear and reappear in new arrangements, offering little glimpses of reality in different lights, like an extended poem.
You could read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous for its language alone and float happily in pure linguistic joy. But Vuong’s way of describing well-addressed themes — violence, trauma, otherness, addiction — is refreshingly unfiltered. There is no black and white nor blame. Hong’s post-traumatised ways of acting, for example are shown in all their complexity; besides the slaps, there is love and care, albeit in less than typical forms. The same goes for Trevor’s drug addiction and abusive father as we watch Little Dog’s and Trevor’s passion turn into a relationship of worry, the drugs slowly taking hold. The seriousness and sense of fatality is interspersed with the full force of youth when the couple ride bikes through their town, re-enacting Jack and Rose’s flying scene from Titanic. It’s as if Vuong is bringing experience to the page as such, without forcing it to fit into anything.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous as a title is a reference to that nature of youthfulness. It does not, however, capture the novel: it’s permanent brilliance.
Anna is a bookworm and journalist.
Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Vintage, 2020). 978-1529110685, 242pp., paperback.