On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
By Ocean Vuong
Penguin Press. 242 pp. $26
Reviewed by Bethany Ao
It’s quite possible that I will not be the first, nor the last, person to recommend Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous to you this summer.
Vuong, who emigrated from Ho Chi Min City to Hartford, Conn., as a child, first sprang into mainstream literary consciousness in 2016 with Night Sky With Exit Wounds, a remarkable collection of poems on immigration, intergenerational trauma, and queerness. Now he’s making his debut as a novelist, and we are blessed for it.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is structured as an unsent letter from the Vietnamese American narrator, Little Dog, to his illiterate mother. (Vuong published a version of the first chapter of the book in the New Yorker in 2017 for Mother’s Day.) The letter is filled with memories of violence, unconditional devotion, the joy of first love, and heartbreak, fragmented in the way immigrant experiences often are. Vuong sketches out the novel’s characters with a poet’s hand, capturing intimate conversations and moments through stunningly lyrical prose that grounds the book despite its non-linear narrative structure.
While Little Dog’s mother, Rose; his grandmother, Lan; and his first love, Trevor, all play important roles in the novel, the book is first and foremost a love letter to language. Little Dog never takes his mastery of it for granted — both his mother and grandmother are illiterate. He knows that being unable to pick out the right words and say them in the right way at the right time means that you are helpless in this country, unable to express yourself. It means that other people will laugh at you at the grocery store and push your face into bus windows for looking different.
But master language, and it opens doors for us. It creates bridges we use to connect with those we care about. It gives us power when we might not have anything else.
At one point, Little Dog sneaks back into his childhood home in the middle of the night to seek comfort from Rose, despite being unable to confide in her. “It’s in these moments, next to you, that I envy words for doing what we can never do — how they can tell all of themselves simply by standing still, simply by being,” Vuong writes. “Imagine I could lie down beside you and my whole body, every cell, radiates a clear, singular meaning, not so much a writer as a word pressed down beside you.”
We are witnessing something necessary and powerful with On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which asks us to search what is human in us and ask what it really means to be alive, to seek truth within the mess that is life. For Vuong, the answer is clear: It is to love without fear, despite violence, through bonds created with words.