On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Published: Vintage, Jonathan Cape imprint (June 20th 2019)
Genre: adult; contemporary
LGBT rep: gay mc (ownvoices), gay li
Rating: 5/5 🍑
Brilliant, heartbreaking, tender, and highly original – poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a sweeping and shattering portrait of a family, and a testament to the redemptive power of storytelling.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born – a history whose epicentre is rooted in Vietnam – and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to the American moment, immersed as it is in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.
With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.
I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Ocean Vuong is first & foremost a poet and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is his literary debut (he also has a poem by the same title). It’s not a novel novel, though, not in this very Western sense we’re all used to. There are no prominent arcs or villains, or any ascending tension. It’s described as a letter from a son to his mother & that’s how it reads, but you could also call it a memoir and not be too far off the mark.
The book is divided intro three sections, none of them with titles, apart from simple Roman numbers. But their themes are obvious nonetheless (being an immigrant in the US, being gay, dying) and they’re overflowing with emotions. You can’t really forget that Vuong is a poet, with how beautifully crafted this novel is. He doesn’t often name things, instead lets himself be vague with metaphors & trusts the reader will understand what he’s getting at anyway. The whole experience is a lot like reading a poem, but this isn’t just a novel in verse & it’s not just a letter, either. It blurs the lines and it does it without you even noticing.
Just like everything Vuong published so far, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is very raw, visceral even and vicious at times. But all the feelings (pain) it evokes ring true. That’s the real strength of Vuong’s novel: the honesty evident not only in the emotions it brings to life, but in the life itself that it describes; all the ups-and-downs, all the ugly details, all the not-poetry-like details. There’s no shying away from the mundanity of life here, from parts the fairy tales (and porn) omit.
Do you often read poetry?
How about novels written by poets?
Who comes to mind?