Book Review : On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous By Ocean Vuong
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 epicenter 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 our American moment, immersed as we are 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.
A Sneak Peek Into “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”
Autumn. Somewhere over Michigan, a colony of monarch butterflies, numbering more than fifteen thousand, are beginning their yearly migration south. In the span of two months, from September to November, they will move, one wing beat at a time, from southern Canada and the United States to portions of central Mexico, where they will spend the winter.
They perch among us, on windowsills and chain-link fences, clotheslines still blurred from the just-hung weight of clothes, the hood of a faded-blue Chevy, their wings folding slowly, as if being put away, before snapping once, into flight.
It only takes a single night of frost to kill off a generation. To live, then, is a matter of time, of timing.
That time when I was five or six and, playing a prank, leapt out at you from behind the hallway door, shouting, “Boom!” You screamed, face raked and twisted, then burst into sobs, clutched your chest as you leaned against the door, gasping. I stood bewildered, my toy army helmet tilted on my head. I was an American boy parroting what I saw on TV. I didn’t know that the war was still inside you, that there was an American boy parroting what I saw on TV. I didn’t know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves—but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son. Boom.
“You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even know there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty.”
That time, in third grade, with the help of Mrs. Callahan, my ESL teacher, I read the first book that I loved, a children’s book called Thunder Cake, by Patricia Polacco. In the story, when a girl and her grandmother spot a storm brewing on the green horizon, instead of shuttering the windows or nailing boards on the doors, they set out to bake a cake. I was unmoored by this act, its precarious yet bold refusal of common sense. As Mrs. Callahan stood behind me, her mouth at my ear, I was pulled deeper into the current of language. The story unfurled, its storm rolled in as she spoke, then rolled in once more as I repeated the words. To bake a cake in the eye of a storm; to feed yourself sugar on the cusp of danger.
The first time you hit me, I must have been four. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My mouth a blaze of touch.
The time I tried to teach you to read the way Mrs. Callahan taught me, my lips to your ear, my hand on yours, the words moving underneath the shadows we made. But that act (a son teaching his mother) reversed our hierarchies, and with it our identities, which, in this country, were already tenuous and tethered. After the stutters and false starts, the sentences warped or locked in your throat, after the embarrassment of failure, you slammed the book shut. “I don’t need to read,” you said, your expression crunched, and pushed away from the table. “I can see—it’s gotten me this far, hasn’t it?”
Then the time with the remote control. A bruised welt on my forearm I would lie about to my teachers. “I fell playing tag.”
“Sometimes our words are few and far between, or simply ghosted. In which case the hand, although limited by the borders of skin and cartilage, can be that third language that animates where the tongue falters.”
The time, at forty-six, when you had a sudden desire to color. “Let’s go to Walmart,” you said one morning. “I need coloring books.” For months, you filled the space between your arms with all the shades you couldn’t pronounce. Magenta, vermilion, marigold, pewter, juniper, cinnamon. Each day, for hours, you slumped over landscapes of farms, pastures, Paris, two horses on a windswept plain, the face of a girl with black hair and skin you left blank, left white. You hung them all over the house, which started to resemble an elementary school classroom. When I asked you, “Why coloring, why now?” you put down the sapphire pencil and stared, dreamlike, at a half-finished garden. “I just go away in it for a while,” you said, “but I feel everything. Like I’m still here, in this room.”
The time you threw the box of Legos at my head. The hardwood dotted with blood.
“Have you ever made a scene,” you said, filling in a Thomas Kinkade house, “and then put yourself inside it? Have you ever watched yourself from behind, going further and deeper into that landscape, away from you?”
How could I tell you that what you were describing was writing? How could I say that we, after all, are so close, the shadows of our hands, on two different pages, merging?
“I’m sorry,” you said, bandaging the cut on my forehead. “Grab your coat. I’ll get you McDonald’s.” Head throbbing, I dipped chicken nuggets in ketchup as you watched. “You have to get bigger and stronger, okay?”
“You’re not a monster,” I said. But I lied.
What I really wanted to say was that a monster is not such a terrible thing to be.
The time with a gallon of milk. The jug bursting on my shoulder bone, then a steady white rain on the kitchen tiles.
The time at Six Flags, when you rode the Superman roller coaster with me because I was too scared to do it alone. How you threw up afterward, your whole head in the garbage can. How, in my screeching delight, I forgot to say Thank you.
The time we went to Goodwill and piled the cart with items that had a yellow tag, because on that day a yellow tag meant an additional fifty percent off. I pushed the cart and leaped on the back bar, gliding, feeling rich with our bounty of discarded treasures. It was your birthday. We were splurging. “Do I look like a real American?” you said, pressing a white dress to your length. It was slightly too formal for you to have any occasion to wear, yet casual enough to hold a possibility of use. A chance. I nodded, grinning. The cart was so full by then I no longer saw what was ahead of me.
The time with the kitchen knife—the one you picked up, then put down, shaking, saying quietly, “Get out. Get out.” And I ran out the door, down the black summer streets. I ran until I forgot I was ten, until my heartbeat was all I could hear of myself.
Migration can be triggered by the angle of sunlight, indicating a change in season, temperature, plant life, and food supply. Female monarchs lay eggs along the route. Every history has more than one thread, each thread a story of division. The journey takes four thousand eight hundred and thirty miles, more than the length of this country. The monarchs that fly south will not make it back north. Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return; only the future revisits the past.
What is a country but a borderless sentence, a life?
That time at the Chinese butcher, you pointed to the roasted pig hanging from its hook. “The ribs are just like a person’s after they’re burned.” You let out a clipped chuckle, then paused, took out your pocketbook, your face pinched, and recounted our money.
What is a country but a life sentence?
3 Words to Sum Up This Book
UNPREDICTABLE, THOUGHT-PROVOKING, REDUNDANT
In the year 2019, after seeing just how predictable the genre of books that I’ve been reading, I have started to try to push myself out of my comfort zone more. Of course, as expected, it was stupid hard at first. Heck, it was so difficult to try and engross myself into reading more of other book genres that I pretty much stopped reading for a whole year in 2019. But now, after having a few reads of different genre books under my belt, I have started to feel more comfortable trying new novels.
And if I were to be truly honest with you, that is seriously the only reason why I have picked this book and pushed through all the way to the finish line even though reading books like this get tiring and boring sometimes. Despite my complaints here and there however, I am definitely thankful to my past self who brought me to On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
IMMIGRANT IN AMERICA
From an outsider perspective, America is an amazing country. Understandable, as the US is one of––if not the most––powerful country in the world. So standing on the outside looking in, I have always thought that life in America must be so amazing. I mean, you get all the newest gadgets, all the amazing foods and people, career opportunities, all the best inventions. Seriously, the list is endless. Basically, if you’re an American, you’re most definitely welcome in a lot of places with people instantaneously being friendly with you knowing that you come from an all powerful country.
But of course, with the good, also comes the bad. The contrast between the wealthy and the poor, drug abuse, obesity, school shootings, bullying. The list for those, are also endless. And really, most of the time, the people like us––the non-Americans––try to not think about it. We think of America as this all powerful and capable country that anyone would be grateful to live in.
While reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous however, Ocean Vuong brought the bad and the ugly front and center for his readers to see. From the eyes of Little Dog, the readers follow his journey being an immigrant from Vietnam who couldn’t learn English fast enough to survive in America. We see the bullying that happened to him and his family just because he didn’t fit in, the struggle his mother had to face with subpar English and no college education.
“That’s my mom. I came out her asshole and I love her very much. I am seven. Next year I will be eight. I’m doing fine. I feel good how about you? Merry Christmas Happy New Year.”
From this book, it finally opened my eyes to just how difficult and unfair it is being an immigrant in a country many died for trying to enter.
LITTLE DOG AND HIS FAMILY
This book was written from the point of view of a boy coming from Vietnam with his family into America. He, like many other immigrants that came to America, only came with the clothes on his body and nothing else. Having no skills in anything that could bring in the big bucks, his mother worked in a nail salon, scrubbing and massaging the customers, inhaling the chemicals from the nail polish every single day just so she could earn enough money to feed her family.
His grandmother seems to have PTSD from the time she was in Vietnam in WWII, as she would sometimes start mumbling or telling stories about times that has passed out of nowhere. She loved to tell Little Dog stories about her life in Vietnam, while being half lucid, in and out of memories.
As for Little Dog himself, just like many other immigrants’ children in America, he’s now the one his family relied on when they had to converse in English. So he had to learn English, all the while trying to fit in, and also worrying about his mother and their financial stability.
“Stop, Ma. Quit it. Please.”
I looked at you hard, the way I had learned, by then, to look into the eyes of my bullies.
Sometimes, when Little Dog’s mother came home after a long day from the nail salon, she would hit him out of nowhere. Over the smallest things. But then she would always apologize for it, and tried to bandage the wounds and bruises away. While Little Dog was confused as to why his mother acted the way she did, he understands that despite everything, he loves his mother and his grandmother. Because at the end of the day, this is all the family that he has.
THE POOR AND DRUGS
Something that surprised me when reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is just how prevalent drugs are in the lives of the people who are less fortunate financially.
Before reading this novel, I have an inkling of understanding the relation of drug abuse with people who aren’t that well off financially. But it seems like I underestimated just how much people are using drugs to escape from their reality. While reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Little Dog would casually mention how some of his friends would just die off of drug abuse with little to no emotions at all. As if drug abuse is just an everyday normal for him, which I suppose it is to some extent.
Not only that however, as it seems like this habit of substance abuse was passed down from generations to generations. So say if the parents started drinking or using drugs, there is a high chance that their kids would do so as well, selling just almost everything to chase after the high. So it comes to question, is this the circle of life for the poor? For those of them who wasn’t willfully strong enough to climb out that hole of poverty, is this all there is for them in life?
This is my first time reading Ocean Vuong, and I must say, as pretty as his writing is, this will probably be the last book that I read from him. Not because his books are depressing, because I have read others that are way more emotionally damaging than this. The truth here is that sometimes, I really just cannot stand his writing.
Vuong tried to write the whole book containing some 300 pages worth of words and trying to make it sound as poetic as possible. I get it if he tries to do it every now and then with pretty proses, but trying to whip unicorns and magic every other sentence for the whole book truly gets tiring to read sometimes. I have had times where I truly had to concentrate hard to stop myself from reading the same sentence over and over again. Again, the writing is pretty, but On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is overdoing it a tad bit too much for my palate.
“Sometimes I don’t know what or who we are. Days I feel like a human being, while other days I feel more like a sound. I touch the world not as myself but as an echo of who I was.”
On top of that, I whole heartedly believe that this book could have been cut in half its current length. There are many times in the book where the narrator just started telling long and winded story that in the end didn’t really add anything to overall plot. No offense, but really the only reason I pushed through was because it opened my eyes to how immigrants live in US rather than curious about Little Dog’s story.
So I think it really would make the reading experience a whole lot better had we not have to sift through a shit ton of pretty proses just to get an understanding about Little Dog and his family. It sometimes makes me wonder if Vuong’s publisher gave him an ultimatum to hit certain word count or no book publishy.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OR JUST A STORY?
While reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, there have been times where I wonder if Ocean Vuong was actually Little Dog writing the story about himself and his struggles growing up as an immigrant in a foreign country.
Understandably, there are no real facts for my claim because who am I to know if this book is based on true story or not. Perhaps some of it was real and some of it was made up, I guess we’ll never know. But for some reason, while reading this book, it does give you a sense of the writer getting out all his pains, frustration and conflicts under anonymity. It was as if we’re seeing someone release all the baggage that he’s been carrying around all this time in the form of a book.
“If we are lucky, the end of the sentence is where we might begin. If we are lucky, something is passed on, another alphabet written in the blood, sinew, and neuron; ancestors charging their kin with the silent propulsion to fly south, to turn toward the place in the narrative no one was meant to outlast.”
Which is not a bad thing, of course.
Honestly, I can’t say if I recommend this book or not. It’s not really all that exciting in terms of storytelling. If anything, it’s a bit dull and boring at times. But still, despite all that, I really appreciate what I was able to glean and learn from this novel.
It’s not an everyday occurrence where you could really look into someone’s life and see their struggles and grieve without it turning into a woe-is-me pity party. I liked that Vuong wrote the story in a matter of fact way, as in that he didn’t try to sway the readers to think one way or the other towards the plot or the characters.
However, the writing does leave little to be desired. On a normal basis, I would be able to finish a 300 page novel in 6 hours––give or take. But with On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I find myself having to take constant breaks in between because of how long-winded the writing can be at times.
Of course, I wouldn’t say that I regret reading this book, because at the end of the day, I am one story wiser than I was before. But would I read another book from this author again? Well…that’s another story altogether.
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