“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” – Ocean Vuong’s quiet masterpiece that redefines the boundaries of storytelling

I am coming to this review with only one night’s sleep separating me from the moment that I turned the final page of Ocean Vuong’s masterpiece, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I am urgently aware that in order to do the book any kind of justice, I must be writing fresh off my return from the tobacco farm in Hartford, Connecticut and the graveyard in Saigon at dusk. I am part of the rare and guilty party that, until now, has not been familiar with Vuong’s work. Prior to the publication of his debut novel, his poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016) was awarded both the T.S Elliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Poetry, and although I am yet to read the anthology, I can say with every certainty that he was deserving of both accolades based on the luminous and lyrical spirit of this novel.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is one of those rare novels that seems to transcend genre or categorisation. Is it prose, or an extended poem that spans generations and border checkpoints? Is it a novel, or is it a memoir hidden beneath a thin veil of distance created by Vuong to externally validate his work and make his experiences more worthy of the sacred title of “literature”? To put it plainly, the book is a letter written from our narrator, Little Dog, to his illiterate mother. Within the pages, Little Dog, or Vuong himself, has created a space where he can be completely honest about his feelings, desires and memories with the woman who raised him. However, the achingly poignant truth that underpins the story is that his mother will never be able to read it.

Little Dog, along with his mother, aunt and grandmother arrive in America after fleeing the conflicts of Vietnam and the shadows of the war loom heavily over the family, each character carrying their own manifestation of the trauma. The novel has never been overtly publicised as piece of autobiographical writing, meaning I am hesitant to jump to the conclusion that every aspect of the novel reflects Vuong’s own personal experience. However, to highlight the glaring parallels between Vuong’s life and the life of Little Dog each time the novel turns a narrative corner would become tiresome, so I think it is safe to assume from here on that the novel’s vivid and perspicacious description comes from a place of recollection and personal memory.

From the very first page of the novel, Vuong establishes himself as a writer who looks at every edge and corner of language through a poet’s eye. His prose is laced with metaphor which can take a couple of chapters to adjust to, however he never crosses the line of overloading his writing or getting tangled in a web of contradicting imagery. In fact, he expertly weaves smaller narratives and metaphor into the wider picture, always revealing something intensely human and sometimes distressing, but ultimately enlightening. There were a few chapters where I struggled to comprehend how Vuong would bring us back into the world of Little Dog, after spending many paragraphs and sometimes pages on the golfer Tiger Woods or macaque monkeys or Arabic prayer. However, Vuong always, always gently guided me back Little Dog before I realised I had ever left him.

The novel’s epistolary nature also lends itself to the poetic style in which Vuong writes. With each chapter Little Dog addresses to his mother, the reader is taken to a different frame of his life in which both large and small moments of self-discovery take place. This atemporal exploration of both Little Dog’s emotions as well as the wider psyche of Vietnamese immigrants is handled with such sensitivity and is never lost within Vuong’s ethereal description.

I am sure that this romantic style will not appeal to every kind of reader, especially those who enjoy plot-driven novels that gallop from one inciting incident to the next, but I personally believe that Vuong’s novel is more of an emotional experience than a narrative dot-to-dot. Through his incandescent style of writing, the reader is simply required to listen. As a queer Vietnamese immigrant, Little Dog’s marginalised voice, and by extension Vuong’s, carries an immense power born from his unique experience of race, gender, belonging and relationships. Through reading his account, we are granted the opportunity to view modern America from the position of a minority that has been traditionally and persistently subjugated. The novel is a necessary piece of literature for a contemporary society that often falls into the trap of believing that we have reached a place of universal inclusivity in the West. As a British, white woman, I developed a much better understanding of America’s recent history in Vietnam as well as the repercussions of these divisions for those who sought asylum in America.

In many ways, the fulcrum of the novel is Little Dog’s relationship with Trevor and the polarisation between his culture and sexuality. This conflict however is not limited to our narrator and is also explored through Trevor who repeatedly battles against his sexual desires in his repressed and “redneck” upbringing. Despite Vuong’s lyrical treatment of language which occasionally veers towards overly romanticising events, he is not afraid of approaching descriptions of gay love and sex with unapologetic candour. These moments are unabashedly graphic without being gratuitous and are explored with both the tenderness and curiosity of one exploring another body for the first time. Despite Vuong’s other-worldly style, Little Dog’s experience of sexuality and queer identity is somehow deeply rooted in modern culture, from the Star Wars poster on Trevor’s bedroom wall to the 50 Cent lyric that reoccurs throughout their relationship. At times, I found these references to popular culture jarring – as if I had forgotten that I was reading a contemporary text and not a story of folklore that had been passed down from generation to generation. That is how timeless Vuong’s novel can feel.

There is so much I could unpick and praise about this stunning feat of literature, but I don’t want to deny you the pleasure of uncovering its beauty for yourself. It is in no way a conventional novel and rebels against classical and linear narrative structure but Vuong’s new wave style of prose proves indisputably that the power of fiction transcends all borders.

Originally written for Girl Up Norwich’s Blog.

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