On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is really a long letter to his mother. It is about how love and hate can co-exist, as can pleasure and pain, and how these things might colour our brief lives in surprisingly beautiful hues. The bond between a hurt woman and son is at the heart of this story, which unfurls tender new layers right up to the last line. This impressive debut hints at even greater things to come.
In its themes, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous evokes Claudia Rankine and Edouard Louis, whose book-length essay, Qui a tué mon père(2018), concerns a gay son speaking to his working-class father. Vuong is a poet of exceptional talent, yet that’s not quite enough to sustain this novel, which reads like an extended prose poem, with its tone and pacing unchanging throughout. (Sections have previously been published as stand-alone poems.) From a writer with such a striking ability to convey readers into the eternal present of his world, the novel often feels porous and searching, forgetting its debt to narrative. Still, moments of urgency break through. Vuong has been heralded for his insights into “otherness”, but perhaps above all he is a keen anthropologist of the contemporary American experience.
My friend who loved it said that she had to read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous in small doses. I did too, but out of a sense of frustration that a valuable testament from such a promising writer should be so hard to read. It’s possible that the novel simply isn’t Vuong’s form; it’s also possible that given more time, and further drafts, this book could have been brought to perfection. Either way, it will be fascinating to see what this extraordinarily gifted writer does next.
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... 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... 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... The committed reader will find much of value, but others may give up before they reach the end
In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a man writes a letter to his mother that she will never read: understanding this, we feel we are witnessing something incredibly private. Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a profound consideration of identity, as well as a work of sensuous, poetic detail. As the narrator Little Dog writes to his mother in English (a language she cannot read), we are made aware of his sense of invisibility as a Vietnamese-American while becoming totally immersed in his world. This tension between voice and silence is what lends the novel its gentle, dignified attack.
Vuong’s determination to see well-trodden ground afresh, with unremitting complexity, is extremely rare. Lay this book alongside Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life or Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, and you are looking at the difference between adult literature and fairy story. In these authenticity-hungry times, Vuong could have let his sensational biography simply “speak for itself”. There is a great deal to admire: that he was able to give such personal material novelistic treatment; that he had the patience to wait until that was possible; that he only had wait until he was 30. We should answer his patience with our own as we watch this exciting talent try things out on the page, sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong, but always striving to make it new.
Vuong is at his best pressing the words further and harder like this, in his effort to capture in their net the fleeting sensations of a real moment, make on his page the illusion of life. His frankness and precision, writing about Little Dog’s lovemaking with Trevor, is persuasive and moving, as is the unsparing description of grandmother Lin’s death. It’s more problematic when the flow of the story is freighted with too much of a different kind of writing: an explicit commentary on the meaning of what’s happening, or a sort of choric lyrical lamenting between scenes.... Inside the long economy of a novel, however, too much prose in this register inhibits the flow, dilutes the story’s power to persuade us. The passionate politics of this book are most alive whenever we’re most lost inside the experiences of his protagonists.
Vuong was a child refugee from Vietnam and is now one of America’s most noteworthy poets. His poems are beautiful and unpredictable, and the same goes for this, his debut novel. Loosely autobiographical, it’s structured as an address from a twentysomething gay son to his illiterate mother and is brilliantly raw.
All to say, it’s an experimental, highly poetic novel, and therefore difficult to describe. The structural conceit of the book is ostensibly a letter written from a son, Little Dog, to his mother, Ma. But this letter is nearly 250 pages (with poemlike sections in the second half), containing a lengthy essayistic meditation on Tiger Woods’s Asian heritage, his thoughts on Duchamp’s “Fountain,” and plenty of literary musings on figures like Roland Barthes. Most important, Ma, or Rose, cannot read, so the protracted dedication is understood as interior...In today’s culture we’re often offered the choice between the ironic shrug of nihilism and positivity-obsessed pop psychology, which suggests that changing one’s thought patterns can control and produce desirable feelings. Vuong rejects that binary, and the book is brilliant in the way it pays attention not to what our thoughts make us feel, but to what our feelings make us think.
Poet Vuong won both the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the T S Eliot Prize for Night Sky with Exit Wounds, so I was expecting this to be good, but it is extraordinary. Told in the form of a letter from a son, Little Dog, to his mother, who cannot read, it touches on the family history in Vietnam, his life as an immigrant boy in the US and now as a young man. The stories are told in fragments which pierce the heart as Vuong explores race, immigration, class and masculinity in a stunningly original novel.