I had been itching to read Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press) since the first mutterings about it burbled across the literary sphere. I wondered what the poet-turned-novelist would create, unsure of what to expect from the writer behind Night Sky with Exit Wounds. I pictured the book as something like a shooting star, a glorious streak of flame across the night sky; brief, but gorgeous. The early reviews emerged, and it seemed wherever I looked there was a new panegyric about Vuong’s unique, poetic prose—and indeed, when I finally began reading the novel I encountered a prose so vivid and sensuous that each word seemed to excavate some unknown meaning from itself.
With an intuitive second-person narrative and a confessional style that manages to never sound whiny, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous reads like a memoir, detailing the experiences of its protagonist, Little Dog. A queer immigrant poet, Little Dog is keenly reminiscent of Vuong himself, and it is easy to confuse the narrator’s voice with the author’s. Vuong weaves a narrative that describes “the calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones” and muses on what it means to be other things as well: a mother, an addict, bipolar, in love. The story is complex, electric, and heart-breaking, but the style may be more contentious: jam-packed with extended metaphors and penned in a turgid style, some will find it rich and rewarding; others, affected and indulgent.
Vuong’s portrait of mothering and shared family trauma, however, is genuine and raw, wholly untouched by affectation. The fragmented narrative of Little Dog’s mother is fiercely compelling—it’s hard to look away from her, and even harder to watch. She physically abuses her son on several occasions, she is painfully embarrassed of her poverty and immigrant status, she is wracked with PTSD symptoms, she is bipolar. She works in a nail salon, and Little Dog’s (or is it Vuong’s?) insights on immigrant mothers raising children in the nail salon-milieu are touching and evocative. Little Dog muses on his mother’s claims that she is “not a monster,” but rather “a mother,” and wonders if the two are extricable. “To be a monster is to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse: both shelter and warning at once,” he decides, conflating the two. In this narrative about mothering, Vuong carefully dissects the “other” from “mother,” sculpting a body that has been othered because of what it inherently is: a beacon for both protection and destruction.
And yet the word “mother” becomes reverent under Vuong’s pen. Mothering becomes a grammar of intimacy, inseparable from the formation of her offspring’s narrative: “it is no accident…that the comma resembles a fetus—that curve of continuation.” The placenta, too, is imagined as a place of connection and communication, forging a primordial language from basic need by acting as the medium through which a mother and son can speak their “true mother tongue…in blood utterances.” Vuong paints the linguistic connection between a mother and child as transcendent, both within and apart from language—appropriate given that the epistolary novel is structured as a love letter from Little Dog to his mother, written in a language she cannot read. “I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours,” Little Dog writes. “Which is to say, I am writing as a son.” Mothering here becomes a unique linguistic phenomenon, an “alphabet written in the blood, sinew, and neuron.”
Little Dog’s familial traumas are woven alongside his burgeoning relationship with Trevor, a boy “raised in the fabric and muscle of American masculinity.” Their love story is gentle and tentative—set against the night sky and played out in rustic barns and bucolic fields, the boys’ romance is youthful and sweet. Their idyll is punctured, rapidly and unapologetically, by pain: BDSM plays a role, tainted by allusions to Little Dog’s childhood abuse; Trevor develops a drug problem; both boys’ families stridently voice homophobia. The word “boyfriend” is keenly absent from their vocabularies, yet a reciprocal tenderness is nurtured throughout the relationship. Even when Trevor’s behavior borders on violent, the narrative is still tinged with beauty: moths die around the boys throughout an aggressive sex scene, softly showering the floor with the dust of dead wings; afterward, Trevor washes Little Dog in a river, the two baptized into something only they can understand.
Disguised as the unlikely love story between two young boys, one a redneck and the other from an immigrant family, the romance in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is truly between a man—Little Dog, his voice a proxy for Vuong’s own—and his love for language. The novel is brimming with reflections on what it means to be a writer, each sentence pulsing with a casual poetry. It is an ode to language and grammar, reverent without seeming masturbatory, with descriptions that any logophile will obsess over. In Vuong’s unique lexicon, two people standing together wordlessly become “parataxis,” their bodies adjacent and continuous, their connection unspoken and without punctuation; Vuong gives voice to a fall afternoon as the “wind [makes] a lexicon of the leaves.” Vuong draws upon the power of words, as well as upon the allure of literature. As a child, Little Dog runs away from his abusive home, carting two books: “although he could not read chapter books yet, he knew how far a story could take him, and holding these books meant there were at least two more worlds he could eventually step into.”
Vuong asks his audience, Do reading and writing necessarily belong to the realm of the damaged and afraid? Are they still valuable art if they’re not an escape from destruction? He laments that “a battleground state” is prescribed for writing, as if art cannot be produced in the absence of pain. “Why can’t the language for creativity be the language of regeneration [instead],” he offers, envisioning a creative space where things are being pieced back together rather than falling apart. Later he likens this to his own family’s creation story: “I told myself we were born from war…[but] we were born from beauty.” Despite this, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a product of Vuong’s own pain, of his endurance. He presents to readers a word, kipuka: “The piece of land that’s spared after a lava flow runs down the slope of a hill—an island formed from what survives the smallest apocalypse.” The reason kipuka has any significance, the reason it is freighted with gorgeousness and meaning, is because it has been ravaged by horror: “only by enduring does it earn its name.”
With nuanced characters, difficult content, and a labyrinthine style, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous should by all rights be a complicated read. Yet it is a breeze. Each idea is carefully unspooled for the reader, creating digestible micronarratives with easily spotted theses. It seems as though Vuong is analyzing the text as he writes it, pointing out symbols and unpacking the subtext, chiseling the story’s complexity into something simpler, a hodgepodge of quasi-profound insights and overwrought motifs. The result is a bizarre hybrid of conventional narrative and lyrical essay—sure to make many readers roll their eyes, while making every English major and MFA student absurdly happy. I would recommend this book with reservation to the casual reader and tentatively even to literature lovers—but fervently to aspiring writers.