Reviewed by Vivian Wagner
Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a haunting novel about how the past is really never past, and how trauma passes through generations in the form of stories, memories, and experiences. It’s also about attempts to find hope and beauty in the midst of that ever-present trauma.
The novel tells the story of Little Dog, now in his late twenties and attempting, with this novel, to write a letter to his mother. In this letter he tries to explain to his mother who he is, exploring both his sense of identity and his need for love and connection.
The Vietnam War and the trauma it engendered both in his family and in the larger culture hangs over this novel. Little Dog’s grandmother is the family matriarch, and her life and eventual death provide the scaffolding of the novel’s story and of Little Dog’s identity. His mother, alternately abusive and loving toward her son, is a mystery he’s still trying to solve. And in the midst of everything is Little’ Dog’s homosexual identity and his first love with Trevor, who dies as a too-young man of an opioid overdose.
The novel spans decades and has multiple levels of terror and trauma. At the same time, it’s about finding love and moments of beauty, hope, and pleasure, and, ultimately, it’s about survival.
Vuong, who’s also the author of a poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), has a poetic sensibility and style—so much so that parts of this novel read more like prose poems than like fiction. He starts the novel, for instance, with a memory of a taxidermied buck in a rest stop in Virginia. Speaking to his mother, he says, “I think now of that buck, how you stared into its black glass eyes and saw your reflection, your whole body warped in that lifeless mirror.” For his mother, the buck “embodied a death that won’t finish, a death that keeps dying as we walk past it to relieve ourselves.” The image carries the combination of terror and mundanity that pervades the novel.
Later, we hear of the mother’s violence against Little Dog when he was a child: “the first time you hit me, I must have been four. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My mouth a blaze of touch.” It’s a violence borne of the trauma and pain of history, and it’s also, perhaps, his mother’s failed attempt at some kind of connection. The fact that the young Little Dog hides the abuse from his teachers, saying that he got a bruise on his forearm from falling during tag, is part of the novel’s tragedy, and also of its truth. He couldn’t tell the story then, so he’s trying to tell it now.
The novel is, in part, about the process of writing, and about Little Dog’s faltering attempts to find the emotional vocabulary to tell his story. The novel teases meaning out of a murky, distant, and unknowable past, as Little Dog navigates the violence of his childhood and of American culture.
At the same time, he finds moments of hope and beauty, both in his relationship with Trevor and with his mother and grandmother. These moments are fleeting and brief, to be sure, but the novel suggests that perhaps they’re the best that can be hoped for in a deeply traumatic and traumatized world.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong, is published by in the UK by Jonathan Cape.
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. Visit her website at http://www.vivianwagner.net.