Ocean Vuong, who emigrated from Ho Chi Minh City to Hartford, Conn. as a child, sprang into mainstream literary consciousness in 2016 with Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a remarkable collection of poems on immigration, intergenerational trauma, and queerness. The work is one of the highest regarded contemporary collections on the market; Vuong’s honors include a Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize.
His first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, also speaks of multi-generational PTSD, charting the fate of a Vietnamese-American family struggling to settle into working class life in 1990s New England. Vuong frames his novel as a letter from Little Dog, a young gay writer in his late 20s, to his illiterate mother Rose. Vuong published a version of the first chapter of the book in the New Yorker in 2017 for Mother’s Day.
Little Dog writes of his love for his mother and his grandmother, both of whom are reeling from the trauma of war, immigration, loss of language, and Alzheimers. And he recalls how the violence of the Vietnam War transmutes itself into the frequent physical attacks rained down on Little Dog by his mother. “I didn't know,” Little Dog writes to her, “that the war was still inside you ... [and] that once it enters you it never leaves — but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son.”
Those readers familiar with Vuong’s poetry will recognize the same calibrated orality; he turns beautiful phrases which lend his pronouncements the timeless quality of deeply-earned wisdom. “Freedom is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.” And his writing contains the line-by-line density of poetry: the rush of a joint makes Little Dog, feel ‘skull-less;’ a heart ripples in an emaciated body ‘like a trapped fish;’ a piano ‘drips its little notes, like rain dreaming itself whole.’ Given that a novel in verse ended up on last year’s Booker shortlist, to redress the balance I’d be happy to see this up for the T. S. Eliot Prize.
There is a new avant-garde afoot, and Vuong claims his own form, making the kind of grand gestures few writers would dare. Sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes pretentious, sometimes both at once. And as compelled as a reader might be by the gorgeous language, or the political force and wisdom of Vuong’s insights, the novel lacks a compelling structure and sometimes loses its voltage through repetition, with many of the better observations dulled by the presence of so many similar ones throughout. This is a work worthy of attention for its exploration of class, race, sexuality and generational trauma. The committed reader will find much of value, but others may give up before they reach the end.
For me, this novel comes at a time when I am examining my own past. It comes at a time when Eugene Lee Yang releases an artistic articulation of a similar journey. To read books like these in a turbulent and confusing time can be a miraculous way to see one’s place in the universe as intentional. On earth we are not always gorgeous; and neither are the events in this novel. But there is a certain awe that comes in the wake of our worst moments, right alongside the best ones.