Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is like a series of Polaroid flashes in the dark, a collection of memories offered with the inherent unease of someone else’s scrapbook.
The novel jumps between past and present to reveal a life told in stanzas, which makes sense since Vuong is a poet. Framed as a letter from Little Dog to his mother who cannot read it, Vuong’s debut novel skips along the bloody sidewalks of a Connecticut shadowed by mansions and old money. Little Dog is twice over the child of war; his mother is the daughter of a Vietnamese woman and a white GI, and Little Dog was born in the tangle of the Vietnamese diaspora.
Shot through with violence—the physical and emotional abuse Little Dog suffers from his mother; the mental health issues which turn his mother and grandmother from doting to fearful; the pleasures of submitting to rough sex with the boyfriend he found harvesting tobacco—On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous can be both beautiful and self-indulgent. Vuong’s exceptional control of language is sometimes undercut by the sophomoric devices of a poet caught in a book instead of a few pages. What Vuong knows, however, is the power of the short scene.
The novel shifts from one moment to another in language that leaves you breathless at its best, serving to better connect you with Little Dog. Only a few details need to resonate, and Vuong provides so many that at least one will make you feel like you have something in common with Little Dog.
When Little Dog’s boyfriend Trevor—something like a Swamp Yankee, fentanyl patches on his arm and an alcoholic dad in his trailer—introduces him to 50 Cent by singing “Many Men,” I was transported back to my cousin’s pickup. I remembered the speakers shaking my chest cavity as we drove through Southeastern Ohio or South Carolina singing the hook, many many many many men wish death ‘pon me. When Little Dog recalls his many friends dead from drug overdoses or violence, I was again under an overpass on the Schuylkill River, seeing a dead friend as a ghost on the side of the road.
Every peek into Little Dog’s life carries with it the possibility of tying into the reader’s own. These tiny connections create a unique intimacy; Little Dog’s memories abut yours so that you share a language, even if the vocabulary is small. The book begins feeling like a memoir more than a novel.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous lives and dies by the power of these little scenes, becoming flesh and blood when you have something in common with Little Dog and turning back into bound pages when Vuong leans a bit towards cliché. But those moments are quickly forgiven when the next memory, skipping like a stone, sends ripples through your own.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/art critic based in Chicago. His work has appeared in The Verge, The Atlantic, Quartz, Hazlitt, VICE Sports, Chicago Magazine, Sports Illustrated, New American Paintings, the Myrtle Beach Sun News and numerous other publications.