ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS
By Ocean Vuong
“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is Ocean Vuong’s second debut. His first, as poet, was spectacular and met with wide praise, even garnering comparisons to Emily Dickinson. The talent on display in that book, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” is undeniable, and if you haven’t yet read his poetry, I’d recommend starting there before venturing on to Vuong’s debut as a novelist. Many of the same themes and obsessions haunt both books: Violence is one, whether from the American war in Vietnam (Vuong himself is Vietnamese-American), or from within the family; queerness is another; the body itself; race; ecstasy and joy. In fact, the novel is titled after one of Vuong’s poems, and in a way you could think of this second book as something like a cutting from the first, planted in new soil and morphed into some new genus.
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.
The conceit can make for some lovely lines, as when Little Dog falls for another boy: “There were colors, Ma. Yes, there were colors I felt when I was with him.” Reading that line, I was reminded of Melanie’s famous B-side, “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma”; there as well as here, the power lies in the intimacy of that “Ma” at the end of the refrain, in capturing the desire to take the pain of the world home to mother and hold it up to her like a hurt she might kiss. That act is a kind of talismanic seal, a spell, a gesture that transforms hurt into healing through the shared belief in its power.
The reality is that Little Dog has been kissing Ma’s bruises his whole life. Ma emerges as troubled, troubling and enchanting. Her own mother, Lan, survived the war by doing sex work, and Ma’s father, whom she never knew, was one of Lan’s American soldier clients. During the postwar years, Rose suffered the brutal bullying consequences of being a mixed-race child. Little Dog was born in Vietnam, but his family flees as refugees to Hartford when he is just a toddler. He’s raised by his uneducated mother (who works at a nail salon) and grandmother in 1990s America.