Sometimes gorgeous

Book cover for On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is written as a letter from Little Dog to his mother. The author, Ocean Vuong, is a celebrated poet, and his first novel is a fragmentary narrative that centers around Little Dog, now in his late twenties, coming to terms with who he is and how he was raised. The story hops around in time and space, sampling artfully from Little Dog’s memories as well as the lore passed down to him through his mother and grandmother.

The broader story underlying this narrative is an essential one. It’s about the human costs of inequity, about human hardship, trauma, and survival. Vuong looks unflinchingly at American society, including its racism, bullying, and widespread drug addiction. That said, despite much excellent writing, it somehow didn’t quite work for me as a novel. The disjointed nature of the narrative comes naturally in the context of someone writing a long letter about his memories. But Vuong announces both the novel’s aggressive rawness and forcefully digressive style early on as it diverts into a fairly detailed sequence about men eating a live monkey’s brain. The scene struck me as unnecessarily graphic at first. I came to understand that this vividness is part of the point. However, I felt that the novel missed out on a human element in its relentless pursuit of the ugly in order to make an almost academic conclusion about finding beauty in life’s experiences.

Vuong often dances around thoughts and characters rather than delving into them. There are many philosophical-sounding statements, but I thought a good number of them more vague than insightful. Just flipping through the pages for one right now, I find, “They say nothing lasts forever but they’re just scared it will last longer than they can love it.” I wish Vuong had given us a better sense of the characters so that we could understand more through them and not have things summed up for us in these forced statements. I never really did get a sense, for example, of who Little Dog’s love interest was as a person; he seemed more of a movie type. That may have been intentional, to make him come across as a standoffish, remote person despite their intimacy, but I felt there was just a gap there.

At the end of part two, about two-thirds of the way through the book, Vuong breaks the prose apart and spools together many of the scenes and ideas at work into a powerful 8-page sequence in poetic form. While you might argue that this reflects his storytelling style in the novel as a whole, it made me wish that the rest of the novel had been told in a similar manner. By trying to wedge these instincts into the structure of a novel, however disjointed it is, Vuong missed out on conveying some of the life that I think he was trying to represent. The pacing and character development were slightly labored, and I kept feeling the book was stalling. I think it would have worked beautifully if it was more even experimental. Given the platform Vuong has from his poetry, perhaps he could have gotten away with this.

All in all, although I couldn’t really recommend this novel, I’d certainly be interested in future prose by Vuong–and I definitely intend to read more of his poetry.