ON EARTH WE'RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS: BOOK REVIEW
TW: abuse, trauma
"You asked me what it’s like to be a writer and I’m giving you a mess, I know. But it’s a mess, Ma—I’m not making this up. I made it down.”
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is Ocean Vuong’s debut novel. His writing takes the form of a letter from a character named “Little Dog” (symbolizing Vuong himself) which is addressed to his single mother, who is unable to read. The author takes a very personal approach to writing; embedded throughout the book are flashbacks of moments he has shared with his mother, and other narratives as well. His and his family’s history is told in a nonlinear progression.
The novel is also multi-generational, tracing his grandmother’s life as she leaves an arranged marriage during the Vietnam War to marry an American soldier. There is an immense amount of memories and narratives present in the book. Vuong’s storytelling is extremely engaging due to his descriptive nature of writing, capturing everything he sees and focusing on not only his thoughts but his environment. There is a collectivist approach in the nature of his writing, de-centering himself from the narratives being told.
Trauma reverberates throughout his recall. Little Dog mentions instances of abuse, where his mother would hit him or become violent. There is forgiveness in tone. At one point, he attributes her behavior to her lived experiences with war— her violence with her son is a preparation for the violence he will encounter later in life. Towards the later parts of the book, readers are introduced to Trevor, a lover and friend of Little Dog whose overdose continues to take up Little Dog’s life and the formation of his personal trauma.
The discussions Vuong has are so prevalent and apparent of the experiences of immigrant families. The author brings up the question of his mother tongue: it is a source of strength, but also an increasing void. This reflection resonated with me, as it would with many immigrant communities in the United States that have experienced war and U.S. imperialism, grappling with the imminent Americanization and an attempt to retain heritage. He also reflects on different forms of language, showing us that our parents often speak another language of love, despite not showing it in the most conventional “American” ways. There is a different tongue for everything.
Vuong’s writing is extremely intimate and personal. At the same time, he is very universal. There is both uniqueness and relatability in his experiences. Vuong is enigmatic, but his openness allows readers to engage so deeply into his past. It seems like you’re by his side, watching his memories play out in real-time. While I was first introduced to Vuong as a poet, there is definitely a poetic touch to his prose as well.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an exemplary showcase of Vuong’s talent. He finds balance even in the midst of trials and tribulations, giving readers the tools to transpire catharsis and to find healing in the process.