On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Penguin Press, 2019; 256 pp
Reviewed by Kelly Lucero
Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is a fictional story told in the epistolary form. The epistolary novel works well for Vuong because the form mimics his previously published work in poetry by allowing the story to unfold in fragments. In fact, the fragmented form also lends itself well to the subject matter of the novel, which explores questions of the different facets that comprise identity—sexuality, ethnicity, class, and gender.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous takes the form of a letter from a son, named Little Dog, to his mother. Because the mother cannot read, Little Dog is able to tell his tale with a raw vulnerability that might not be present if she understood. Little Dog writes of his family beginning at the time of his grandmother’s escape from Vietnam during wartime. As such, Vuong discusses the family’s immigration issues in America with an urgency relevant in United States politics today. Further, Vuong embeds such issues in metaphor, making them appear beautiful on the surface. For example, he weaves discussion of color throughout the novel, posing questions about Little Dog’s skin color, his pink bicycle, and the colors of bruises from violence. These metaphors not only lend themselves over to Vuong’s lyrical prose, but also serve as a constant thread, tying the fragments of the tale together. As Vuong writes, “I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck—the pieces floating, finally legible.” Through his writing, then, Vuong is able to connect the fragments and make them somewhat whole.
As the novel follows Little Dog’s life from childhood to adulthood, it really finds its footing when he explores his own identity rather than those of his family members, especially when it comes to sexual exploration. The urgency and vulnerability are most palpable when Little Dog discusses Trevor, his love interest. Moreover, discussions of gender identity and masculinity are inherent in the discussion of sexuality. For example, while Little Dog and Trevor engage sexually, it is clear that Trevor is at war with his own masculinity and sexuality, questioning, “I am not / a faggot. Am I? Am I? Are you?” The repeated question marks an urgency in Trevor’s tone, indicating a fear that he might be gay, and in this fear, a strong desire not to be.
Throughout the entirety of the novel is a sense of yearning. Little Dog yearns to understand his mother’s experiences, those of his grandmother, and ultimately his own. Through trying to understand his family members’ experiences, Little Dog also seeks to express gratitude for them and acknowledge that they are what gave him a better life. As he professes to his mother:
Ma, I don’t know if you’ve made it this far in this letter—or if you’ve made it here at all. You always tell me it’s too late for you to read, with your poor liver, your exhausted bones, that after everything you’ve been through, you’d just like to rest now. That reading is a privilege you made possible for me with what you lost.
Little Dog’s successes, then, are a result of what his family has given up. He recognizes the privilege he has in being able to read and write—something his mother cannot do. This privilege is also indicative of a much larger privilege: Little Dog is able to communicate with the people in the United States, bringing him a bit closer to belonging.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a complex novel that explores many difficult issues. As such, it is a lot to take in at once. Vuong expertly crafts his novel to invoke emotion in his reader, and in doing so, it often becomes incredibly heavy. However, it is in this grittiness where the true beauty lies. As Little Dog concludes, “To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.” Thus, it is through his vulnerability, that Little Dog ultimately finds beauty.