Updated: Apr 27
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Author: Ocean Vuong
Written By: Elliot Eatinger
The narrator -- referred to as Little Dog -- writes a continuous letter to his mother Hong (translated and depicted as Rose); the expression of these memories is to offer insight into a world that feels both dividing and uniting. Rose cannot read, yet she and her mother Lan both are storytellers. He allows insight into his coming-of-age -- first schools, first jobs, first loves and losses -- that is just as much about hope as it is devastation.
This is Ocean Vuong's "semi-autobiographic" debut novel from 2019, following his poetry book Night Sky With Exit Wounds in 2016.
Some Favorite Blurbs:
“What I really wanted to say was that a monster is not such a terrible thing to be. From the Latin root monstrum, a divine messenger of catastrophe, then adapted by the Old French to mean an animal of myriad origins: centaur, griffin, satyr. To be a monster is to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse: both shelter and warning at once.”
“I sat there, watching the concrete fleck with bits of pink as he gashed the key against the bike’s bones. I wanted to cry but did not yet know how to in English. So I did nothing. That was the day I learned how dangerous a color can be. That a boy could be knocked off that shade and made to reckon his trespass. Even if color is nothing but what the light reveals, that nothing has laws, and a boy on a pink bike must learn, above all else, the law of gravity.”
What I Loved (A Brief-ish Review):
I had to whittle this down somehow. Let's see if I succeeded.
Its effortless ties between times -- that of Little Dog, of his mother Rose, of Lan, his grandmother-- are captivating yet do not remove us from the narrator's main purpose. Reading Vuong's work almost feels like looking right over his shoulder into this world; in the pages, the narrator is looking right back at us - asking the questions that we are both afraid to ask and determined to ask anyway. How do we define ourselves in a world that creates labels for us, that confines and lashes out to leave wounds? How do we hold onto the more precious pieces of our hearts?
The story takes us from America to Vietnam and back, and forth and back and forth again; it is as much about Lan's trials through the Vietnam War as it is about Rose and Little Dog's battle between assimilation and self-acceptance. As a protagonist, Little Dog is brutal and honest, yet clutches onto the hope of his youth with the tightest grip he can. The sections with Trevor and his family, in contrast to Little Dog and his own, gripped me as well - and it makes no secret that what we're about to read isn't easy, but worth every word.
(Also: for anyone who hasn't read it, it's important to know that it gets explicit! That absolutely serves the story as well, in both its emotional evocation of sexuality and violence, and Vuong's poetically blunt-force approach.)
My own experiences are different from Vuong's, and that is undeniably what I must acknowledge to the reader, on this first review. Curiosity is the death of ignorance, and that is why we make art. Consume art. I say this though because even as I deeply sympathize with the connections to the women in my life that reared me (a fearsome protectiveness intermingling with the labyrinth of family and their grievance); and, the expression versus masking of sexual identity (with a conversation that painfully mirrored one I’ve had before with family) -- it is different.
We all live our own lives, and it's exciting to share those experiences (similar and different) in the intersectional space of literature.
(Rating systems are tough! It's just as subjectively emotional as it is about approach to form. Wild times.)
Vuong blends his mastery of poetry and prose into the novel. This is a novel that I consistently go back to as an example of how to defy expectations in the epistolary form. Beyond the mastery of form, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous moved me in a way that plenty of others did not quite reach. (And I am a rather tender-hearted individual, if I might say so.) I found myself poring over every page on the train, in the doctor's office, in every corner of my apartment - all starting from an online friend's recommendation. The ending is one that feels the most suitable to Little Dog and Rose’s story, and left me with a heart torn open and a smile spread wide.
The A24 adaptation is set to release, and I cannot recommend this enough; whether you're picking it up for the first time or the hundredth, there is always something new to find.