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.
The Book of Science and Antiquities
"It would be a crime to give away anything more, but the end of this beautiful novel made me cry. Jones writes with intelligence and a lively wit, but there’s more — a warmth that forces you to care about these people as if you had met them...."
— The Times
3 out of 5
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 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.