Poet. Essayist. Memoirist. Novelist. There’s comfort in categorization, in defining writers by what is publicly construed as their dominant genre. University writing programs and bookstores and reviews adhere to the practicalities of this type of sorting. This is all to say it’s easy to examine Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, through the recognition of his chops as a poet.
The book is loaded with lyrical prose, bruising metaphors, and precise imagery. Two late chapters thrust forward in single-line block paragraphs. And so you could say this is a poet’s novel, a bard’s work of fiction, but that misses one of the book’s underlying messages—that language is imperfect, fluid, and inconsistent, a malleable tool that will neither ever quite successfully expresses our joys and sorrows nor meets the idealized nature of its parameters.
Regardless, Vuong harnesses the epistolary form to its full potential. In a letter addressed to his abusive mother, the nameless narrator, affectionately referred to as “Little Dog,” reflects back on his childhood in Hartford, Connecticut. His mother, Rose, is an immigrant from Vietnam who witnessed the unspeakable violence of war firsthand. She works at a nail salon and does not speak English, relying on her son to translate as he grows up. Little Dog also lives with his grandmother, Lan, who often steps in to serve as his protector. When Little Dog approaches adolescence, he begins working on a tobacco farm, where he meets Trevor, his first love. They experiment with drugs and sex, but become distant later in life as Trevor struggles with addiction.
The letter itself, part confession, part origin story, part myth, part self-reckoning, might never be read by its intended receiver, but this disparity between purpose and form reveals some of Vuong’s deeper considerations of language. The letter’s author develops an individualized lexicon, using extended narrative threads to redefine common words in remarkable ways. As the only English speaker in his family, Little Dog’s translations, his redefinitions, are more than a simple process of equating languages. They are part of a complex system where every utterance has vast historical, cultural, personal, and emotional implications, one in which the narrator has firm artistic grounding. Late in the novel, reflecting on Duchamp’s readymade Fountain, Little Dog writes:
“I hate how he proved that the entire existence of a thing could be changed simply by flipping it over, revealing a new angle to its name, an act completed by nothing else but gravity, the very force that traps us on this earth.”
Vuong excels in transporting this sentiment to words on the page. Each chapter illuminates the fragility of our working vocabulary and the weak common structures we rely on to make meaning. Language is flawed in its unavoidable verbal jabs, subtle miscommunications, and phrases we use to intentionally cause emotional distress, as well as the hazardous ways we express love, and the infinite, rudimentary axioms we fall back on to show someone we care. Every bit of language is always ready to be flipped and reimagined, because it’s never been rigid or real at all. None of this struggle is easy to explain, but Vuong expertly dissects these moments of divergence and uses them to develop his characters.
The novel’s more experimental elements, then, sometimes feel like a push to embrace the work’s own impermanence and ambiguity. In the first few pages, Little Dog proclaims, “I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence—I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.”
There’s no way to properly catalog all the ways in which people try to take this freedom away. Little Dog deals with blatant attacks and unspoken judgments about his size, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. While his mother can be ruthless, the most tender moments she shares with Little Dog, even if still terse and hardened, are when she fears for his safety. When Little Dog comes out to her in a Dunkin’ Donuts, she warns him not to wear a dress, because “They kill people for wearing dresses. It’s on the news.” She reacts with immediate concern, and goes so far as to trade a confession of her own, even though Little Dog anticipates this could wind up being the last time they speak. In the end, the letter is a larger admission, a lifetime’s worth of honesty, but without bearing the weight of a direct conversation, and though the written story covers years of past trauma, the narrator can look more optimistically toward the future without fear of being abandoned by his mother.
The cleanest sections of Vuong’s novel come when the narrator tells the stories of others. While Little Dog’s interiority can sag with figurative language and at times be vague and obfuscating, his precise histories of those close to him—Trevor, his grandfather, and Lan—offer more linear, concrete arcs. In other words, Little Dog’s introspections occasionally attempt to punch with a force beyond the limits of the novel’s structure. On the sentence level, there are a few too many haymakers, those bits of prose that really try to cut to the core. They can’t all be expected to land.
This type of metaphor is one our narrator himself considers, wondering why writing is so often discussed in violent terms. “You killed that poem, we say. You’re a killer. You came into that novel guns blazing.”
Here, Vuong is perhaps at his most openly autobiographical and meta, as if predicting the reception of the novel in the process of its development. “They will want you to succeed, but never more than them. They will write their names on your leash and call you necessary, call you urgent.” Again, the italicized words, the fallback, catchall phrases too often used to describe work by marginalized writers, gather a kind of truculent momentum. These phrases are well-intentioned, but still carry an unfixed multitude of meanings that lacks delicacy or nuance.
For all the talk of breaking boundaries, this is still a proper novel if you’re a genre stickler, but to limit On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous to a singular category is a disservice to a work that so clearly can be seen differently from every angle. Vuong’s novel—I’ll say it, I guess: like a poem—packs as much force in the spaces it leaves vacant, the areas where each word can be turned over. It awaits the reader who can see the new it offers every time it is picked up again, and those multiple readings will be well worth it, because there is much to learn about how we hurt and how we love, and how even if those expressions might be fleeting, they remain unforgotten.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
By Ocean Vuong
Published June 4, 2019