Rarely does a book manage to do all the things it sets out to do, with candour and beauty. The instantly compelling title of one of the most anticipated books of 2019 shines through the story of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. This is a chant. The book is plea, a bargain, a heartfelt confession. On earth we’re briefly gorgeous.
This book is a work of autofiction, an intimate letter to a mother who cannot read English, a critique of toxic masculinity, a confession of homosexuality, an anger at the opioid crisis, and a glimpse into the Vietnamese-American immigrant experience in Hartford, Connecticut.
Who will read this letter?
The book is composed as a letter to the protagonist’s mother, and shot through with a sense of urgency and necessity. However, the mother cannot read English. It is a letter addressed to her life from her son, but the kind that can only be discovered by strangers.
Vuong wrote this letter to see if language can really be the bridge it is said to be. In an interview with Seth Meyers he says: “I wanted to start with truth and end with art.” He introduces us to the quiet, almost frail protagonist, Little Dog, who was often beaten up by his mother, who was herself suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A mother who, when in Vietnam, had a child too young, and was herself born of a mother too young. A mother who was a sex-worker for American GIs during the Vietnam war, who gave birth to a child half American and half Vietnamese – the daughter who suffered owing to the whiteness of her skin at home, and to the darkness of her skin in her place of refuge.
“‘You’re not a monster,’ I said.
But I lied.
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: centaurs, griffin, satyr. To be a monster is to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse: both shelter and warning at once.”
Living in languages
Little Dog grows up with his mother, who keeps the household afloat by working in a nail salon, and a schizophrenic grandmother who teaches him the art of story-telling as he plucks the white hairs out of her scalp. He is called Little Dog because it was the tradition in his village, a small rice farm in Vietnam, to name the weakest child after a despicable thing: “To love something, then, is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched – and alive. A name, thin as air, can also be a shield.”
In one scene, Little Dog goes with his mother and grandmother to the grocery store. They want to buy oxtail for the cold winter week ahead, but neither of them knows the English word. So Rose asks the butcher in Vietnamese, despite knowing he will not understand. She performs the body of the beast, holding up her hands to make horns, pointing to an imaginary tale and mooing. She turns quickly from an object of fascination to a laughing stock.
The grocery store is about to shut. People are concerned for her. She speaks in broken French instead. She asks her son to help her. Little Dog does not know that oxtail is called oxtail. All of them turn quiet and leave. And Little Dog feels burdened by the weight of the language that does not belong to him, promising himself to work harder to never put his family in this situation again. The Vietnamese that he knows is inherited from his illiterate mother. The English that he pushed himself to learn has come so that he can help her survive.
It is not that Little Dog does not let himself be vulnerable again, but that he realises the strength of vulnerability. Of the gaps it creates that can be filled with tenderness and exploitation, both. He realises something else too – that the same mother who hits him today was once a victim of abuse herself from a father he could never familiarise himself with.
At the age of fourteen, Little Dog goes to work at a tobacco farm where he becomes friendly with the grandson of the farm owner, a man unlike himself completely. Older and whiter, he survives on a diet of weed laced with cocaine and junk food. He introduces Little Dog to 50 Cent, but also to beauty. At a farm filled with Hispanic immigrant workers who work an impossible job for low wages because it is the only way to survive, Little Dog finds desire.
“The first time we fucked, we didn’t fuck at all. I only have the nerve to tell you what comes after because the chance this letter finds you is slim – the very impossibility of your reading this is all that makes my telling it possible.”
Trevor is charming, almost likeable. Little Dog and Trevor get along despite Trevor’s confusion about how to approach masculinity when performing homosexuality. He doesn’t want to be a girl. He figures he won’t be gay for life. He insists, in fact, that this is just a phase.
Little Dog lets himself be hurt but rebuilds himself constantly. One knows that Little Dog has succeeded because he is introduced to the reader as a writer first, who takes refuge in words, who often uses literary theorists like Roland Barthes to work through his emotions. But Little Dog is careful to let the reader know that vulnerabilities are porous. That language is set out to fail, and that failure can be exhilarating.
Later, Little Dog becomes Ocean Vuong, a TS Eliot Award winning poet who currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts at an MFA programme. His literary presence is almost formidable, for who wouldn’t be scared of a man so determined to write the intimate details of his life with unapologetic honestly and confidence?
His self-assured prose often slips into poetry, reminiscent of his collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds. In that collection, in a poem titled Someday I Will Love Ocean Vuong he writes: “Ocean. Ocean, / get up. The most beautiful part of your body / is where it’s headed. & remember, / loneliness is still time spent / with the world.”
Vuong believes that the stories of people like his family deserve to be a part of Literature with a capital L. That the next greatest writer could be working in a tobacco farm like he did. For someone unfamiliar with his work, I recommend the poetry come first. This is to familiarise oneself with the way he works with the motifs of war, body, and sex before plunging into his evocative novel. Because he is heartless, he will shatter you. Best prepare yourself for the pain, just like Vuong has all his life.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, Random House UK.