On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Penguin Press, 2019. 256p.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Unlike its title, Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is an undeniably gorgeous read from beginning to end. Though ostensibly presented as a work of fiction, the novel is quite plainly based on Vuong’s own life, as those familiar with his previous works will recognize many aspects of the author and his family within the story. Fans of Vuong’s poetry will not be disappointed with the novel, as it proves to be a bold and utterly original take on the form, fusing pure poetic imagery with a raw, confessional kind of memoir.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is, at its heart, a letter from a son to his mother. However, as Little Dog (as the narrator is known) notes, his mother cannot read English, so Little Dog is able to depict his coming-of-age, his darkest secrets, and his tumultuous relationship with his mother with open and unflinching honesty. The letter unfolds not as a linear narrative, but oftentimes poignantly thematic, as Little Dog traces the path of his own life alongside the stories of his mother and grandmother in Vietnam, as well as after their immigration to America, constantly complicating the reader’s perception of each of the characters. Little Dog tells his story with a somewhat detached and matter-of-fact sensibility; he does not ask for pity in times of sorrow, and depicts the small, unexpected moments of beauty within them just as he does in times of joy.

Fans of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous are certain to enjoy Ocean Vuong’s other works, such as Night Sky with Exit Wounds, his most recent collection of poetry. Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, likewise a haunting and experimental novel based upon the author’s own life, may also be of interest, as Li’s book is something of an inverse of Vuong’s story, told from the point of view of a mother in an imagined correspondence to her son. In addition, readers might also like Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child, which similarly focuses on the themes of troubled childhoods and deeply flawed yet sympathetic characters, rendered in Morrison’s indicative lyrical prose.

In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a deeply moving meditation on the function of memory, Vuong finds gorgeous things in the most surprising and often startling of places. Equally lavishing lush and loving descriptions on the heart-wrenching relationships he has with his mother and his first love, the banalities of daily life, and the far-flung horrors of wartime Vietnam, Vuong’s novel will take the reader on a journey through time, place, and recollection, capturing the intricacies of life not only as it is lived within oneself, but also in its scope across generations.

Haley Petersen is a Library Reference Assistant at May Memorial Public Library. You can contact them at hpetersen@alamancelibraries.org.