Okay, so this is going to be a bit of a jumble, but I just finished reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and I had too many things to say and too little time to write it.
Wow, two reviews in one month. I know, I know, this is a bit of an anomaly. I would apologize for my incompetence, but that would suggest that I’m going to be making an effort to make a change, and we all know I’m far too lazy for that.
Without further ado, because I have two tests tomorrow and should not be doing this right now, let’s buckle up and take a trip through this masterpiece of fiction.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is told from the point of view of Little Dog, a descendant of Vietnamese immigrants who lives in Hartford, Connecticut. He was raised by his mother and grandmother, both battered and worn from memories of the war, and this story is a jumble of his recollections from youth.
There isn’t so much as a linear plot to this novel then there are acts: the first being of childhood, the second of falling in love with a boy named Trevor, and the third of growing up and dealing with loss.
Written by the poet Ocean Vuong, this novel is more free-flowing and rhetorically-filled than books I’ve read recently, but it was a welcome change of pace.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: The Review
Ocean Vuong is masterful. He writes his scenes, his settings, his insights like they’re fluid, living entities. His characters are in perpetual motion; there isn’t a moment of static or a piece of dialogue that falls flat. I’ve never been a stickler for the technicalities of writing, but this book reminded me that writing is an art.
Personally, I don’t see memories in filled-out scenes with narrative structure. They’re fleeting: distinct snap-shots of expressions or words or actions. This novel is written like a photo reel of memories; some are short, only a paragraph long, while some are longer, spanning a few pages. It feels raw and raggedly authentic.
There’s this scene, which, I know, is very specific, where Little Dog and Trevor are talking, and Trevor asks what he was like before they met. Little Dog tells him that he thought he was drowning, but now he feels like water.
I think that this book embodies both of those extremes- the panic and inevitability of drowning, and the power and recklessness of being something as invincible as water. That’s how Vuong writes: some sections are choppy, like rapids, some fluid and languid like a twisting river, some abrupt and stark like the edge of a waterfall.
He writes the book as an address to his mother. His mother, who cannot speak English. The first part of the book is mainly focused on her and her many faces. He kind of describes her in a way that’s as ever-changing as his words, and though she’s cruel in moments, she’s still portrayed as a complex human being. Because in the same breath that the narrator describes his mother’s abuse, he’ll apologize to her for not calling enough. He’ll describe her struggling to make ends meet, or staying up late worrying when he doesn’t come home.
It’s just written SO WELL. It paints a picture of a complex, painful, wonderful life of a kid who grew up translating for his mother, who struggled with his sexuality, who was exposed to drugs and abuse and people from different walks of life all in the same corner of a town in Connecticut.
So, this isn’t a book where I can evaluate the plot structure or the pacing or anything like that. It’s just a beautifully written story about a boy who was hidden so as not to be seen finally being noticed, being wanted, and I don’t think there’s anything more human than that.
This isn’t an action-packed novel. It’s a story about growing up, about loss. About women who braved hell to leave a war, but never truly escaped it. About first loves and first losses. It’s just so poignantly human, you know?
“I want to insist that our being alive is beautiful enough to be worthy of replication. And so what? So what if all I ever made of my life was more of it?” ARE YOU KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW. JUST- IT’S ART.
It’s beautiful and gutting and challenging and please, please read it.