In this much-anticipated debut novel from the TS Eliot prize-winning poet Ocean Vuong returns to the themes of his poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds. The narrator of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (which borrows its title from a poem in Vuong’s debut collection) is Little Dog, a Vietnamese migrant to the US, who addresses his mother, exploring his family’s history, the transmission of violence over generations, and his own difficult journey through his sexuality.
Though this is marketed as a novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous reads more like a memoir. It has little plot and is pieced together from recollected scenes and memories which appear at least semi-autobiographical. That is not to say that this is a true-to-life account; rather, it has the ring of non-fiction. Written ostensibly as a letter to the mother of Little Dog, the form of the letter only appears a handful of times, and is not a particularly useful structuring device. At one point, towards the end of the book, the writing breaks down into a sort of prose poetry, reflecting on the responsibility of the writer, and the pain of writing. Sometimes this is effective; at other times it is a little grandiose.
Those readers who are familiar with Vuong’s poetry will recognise in this book the same lyricism, the same skill in turning a beautiful and poignant phrase which renders many of Vuong’s pronouncements timeless, lending them the quality of adages and deeply-earned wisdom. “Freedom is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.” Occasionally, these lines can verge on being precious, or just on the right side of vague to seem meaningful. When the narrator asks “what is a country but a life sentence?”, the phrase might make us pause and reflect, but quickly the reader might posit a number of other things a country could be, and rejects Vuong’s line as reductive or cloying.
Language and silence
This book asks how grief and trauma is transmitted. It also asks profound questions about the inheritance of language, and of silence. In some of the most moving passages, Vuong interplays dark humour and horror in the actions and language of the mother character, whose expectations of what is “normal” reveal, perhaps unknown to her, the trauma of her past. Looking at a pig hanging in a butcher’s shop window, Little Dog’s mother laughs, commenting that “the ribs are just like a person’s after they’re burned”.
Vuong has a skilled eye for image, for the connections of theme, for turning his sections poetically by returning to an idea, changing the terms, offering a sort of volta in prose. He has a formidable mind for poignancy, and for telling detail. However, the skill here isn’t always for narrative on the larger scale, and the book is slow, and often samey, as a result.
As compelled as a reader might be by the beauty of the language, or the political force and wisdom of Vuong’s insights, this is a novel that loses its voltage through repetition, with many of the better sentences or observations being dulled by the presence of so many similar ones throughout the book.
At the centre of the book is the narrator’s relationship with Trevor, a repressed, “all-American” boy, who is by turns tender and stunted. Through Trevor the narrative comes to reflect on the state of the US, the opioid epidemic, the debilitating ways in which masculinity is passed down. This is certainly a courageous work; some of the details of the young narrator’s relationship (particularly his sexual relationship) with Trevor seem new to fiction, and many of them are uncomfortable to read, though handled with grace.
In an early scene, in which soldiers lead a macaque monkey around on a collar and leash, the imagined sound of the monkey screaming is “more like the reel of a fishing rod cast far across a pond”. Macaques, as Vuong notes, are able to recall images and information, and apply them to current problem solving. “In other words, macaques employ memory in order to survive.” The project of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is analogous and deeply felt.
This is a work that has much to say, and is in many respects worthy of attention for its sustained exploration of class, race, sexuality and the deep after-effects of generational trauma. However, what it gives in hard-earned and careful thought, it lacks in compelling structure or focus. The committed reader will find much of value, but others may give up before they reach the end.