Ocean Vuong won the Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize for his critically acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds. His debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is lyrical and crushing, framed as a letter from a son to his mother who cannot read. Little Dog lives with his volatile and abusive mother, Rose, and his schizophrenic grandmother, Lan. During the war, Lan served as a sex worker and his mother was fathered by an anonymous American G.I. The stories of the trauma Lan and Rose endured in Vietnam are woven throughout Little Dog’s narrative; he has grown up with them. In his letter he tries to explain the truth of his own existence to a mother not always able to step outside of her own pain.
“In a previous draft of this letter,” he writes, “one I’ve since deleted, I told you how I came to be a writer. How I, the first in our family to go to college, squandered it on a degree in English. How I fled my shitty high school to spend my days in New York lost in library stacks, reading obscure texts by dead people, most of whom never dreamed a face like mine floating over their sentences – and least of all that those sentences would save me. But none of that matters now. What matters is that all of it, even if I didn’t know it then, brought me here, to this page, to tell you everything you’ll never know.”
Vuong addresses a wide swath of issues: race, class, prejudice, sexuality, and addiction. The novel reads like a memoir and in fact, borrows much from the author’s life, which lends authenticity to the writing. Perhaps some of the more difficult chapters are those that deal with Little Dog’s sexuality. His sexual relationship with Trevor, the grandson of the owner of a tobacco farm where he works, is graphically depicted, not for the faint of heart, yet reveals Little Dog’s intense desire to be seen and understood by another human being. Trevor is wild and tender, the product of a motherless existence and an addiction to opioids prescribed to him after a broken ankle.
Little Dog, Trevor, Lan, and Rose, all of them are looking for freedom and connection, a safe place to be and be known.
But “All freedom is relative,” Vuong writes, “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. Because sometimes not seeing the bars is enough.”
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous isn’t a comfortable read. Its poetic style makes it feel stream-of-conscious and the plot does not march forward in a linear fashion. If you are a fan of “fade to black” moments in the area of sexuality, you will most likely be uncomfortable reading the raw scenes between Trevor and Little Dog. But if you are a fan of lyrical language, of the essay, a fan of the struggle – as in understanding oneself and others outside of your experience, you should give it a read.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.