“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 poem like 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.
This description is not so much the plot of the novel as it is the haunting backdrop that Little Dog circles again and again in his letter. The violence and desperation of the stories he’s grown up hearing (for instance, of men eating the brains of a live monkey as it kicks and rages) are retold and reimagined, exploited for their metaphorical potential. Vuong is masterly at creating indelible, impressionistic images. The characters of both Lan and Ma are shaped by the novel’s glimpses into their ecstasy and agony, as when Ma attends an Afro-Latino Baptist church for the first time, and, among the booming “fat organ and trumpet notes,” she begins shouting at her absent birth father in Vietnamese: “Where are you, Ba? … Where the hell are you? Come get me! Get me out of here! Come back and get me.” Focused, descriptive snapshots of Little Dog’s mother and grandmother abound, largely overshadowing the interstitial bits of essayistic writing. Vuong’s intention with the long riff on the opioid crisis, for example, seems to have been to explicitly abstract political meaning from personal narrative. And, although the book’s break into poetic form is perhaps designed to suggest that there are some expressions only poetry can communicate, at times the stylistic switches can feel like adornments on a powerful story that never required dressing up.
It is all backdrop for perhaps the more propulsive narrative thread that begins midway through the book, when a teenage Little Dog takes a summer job on a farm outside Hartford. There he meets the farm owner’s grandson Trevor, “the boy from whom I learned there was something even more brutal and total than work — want.” Trevor is older, white, a druggie, homosexually active but internally conflicted, twisted up in his own understanding of the demands of masculinity. Vuong beautifully evokes this boy’s seductive power over Little Dog: This is some of the most moving writing I’ve read about two boys experimenting together (and reader, I’ve read a lot). The sex here is good because it feels honest, messy, joyous, awkward, painful. In one scene, Little Dog admires his own body in the mirror, recognizing for the first time his own desirability: “I let the mirror hold those flaws — because for once … they were not wrong to me but something that was wanted, that was sought and found among a landscape as enormous as the one I had been lost in all this time.” The tenderness of the prose feels like a triumph against a world hellbent on embittering the tenderhearted. Early on the novel alludes to a future in which Little Dog has made it to college and found relative success and stability through writing; we assume that Trevor has been left behind, but as we read on, the why and how of the couple’s undoing is heartbreaking to discover.
Nowadays the word “sentimental” is impossible to detach from its pejorative sense, but the original, philosophical sense of the word refers to thought that is either colored by, or proceeds from, feeling. 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. To what kinds of truth does feeling lead? Oscar Wilde famously quipped that sentimentalism is wanting to have an emotion without paying for it, but Little Dog has paid and paid, and the truths arrived at in this book are valuable precisely because they are steeped in feeling.