‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong – A Letter to Mother

 

‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong (2019) – 244 pages

‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ is a novel I feel extremely ambivalent about. It takes the form of a letter written in English by a young man in his late twenties who is nicknamed ‘Little Dog’ to his mother who cannot read English. First ‘Little Dog’ tells of his grandmother when she was living in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. His grandmother meets and marries a United States soldier, and later the family winds up living in Connecticut which is where our story finishes.

‘Little Dog’ does not shy away from telling the true story about his family and himself no matter how gruesome and painful that story is. It is written in exquisite and evocative language that makes for a compelling read. The prose is over-the-top, poetic, gorgeous. The story is intense, and Ocean Vuong does not shy away from the grotesque. Sometimes and in some places life is grotesque.

‘Little Dog’ gets some good advice from his mother:

Remember, don’t draw attention to yourself, you’re already Vietnamese.”

When the American police come to arrest his father for beating up his mother in Connecticut, the father gets out a twenty dollar bill to offer the police to avoid arrest. That’s what the wife beaters did in Vietnam.

They say nothing lasts forever and I’m writing you as an endangered species.”

This is a novel that intentionally sets out to disturb its readers. It disturbed me, so I guess it accomplished its goal. That doesn’t mean I enjoyed reading it. There is a lot of intentionally disgusting imagery. Early on there is a scene in Vietnam of a group of men slicing out the brain tissue of a live Macaque monkey and eating it. That scene sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Later there are graphic scenes of young-man-on-young-man sex as well as excessive unrestrained drug use, and the drugs they use are the killers, heroin laced with Oxycontin or fentanyl.

This is dark decadent fiction on the order of Jean Genet and ‘Our Lady of the Flowers’.

So on the one hand ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ is exquisitely written, but it is appalling, sad, and painful to read on the other hand. The truth is not always easy to confront or deal with.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

6 responses to this post.

  1. Ha! I know it is very unfashionable to admit but I was wildly underwhelmed by his poetry debut which basically sounds like this novel but in verse. Lots of pretty words but over the top, almost fetishizing the violence and the gay sex. I was incredibly aware of his youth (my oldest child is close to his age) and that is not a good thing. I wasn’t considering reading this, but you have confirmed my minimal expectations. It will, of course, be loved and everyone will say they were “gutted” by it. 🙂

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    • Hi roughghosts,
      And I won’t be reading the poetry if, as you say, it is similar to this. If his goal was to shock and offend the reader, he certainly succeeded in my case. I still look for enjoyment and pleasure in the fiction I read, however bourgeois that may be.

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  2. Not for me either, by the sound of things…

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    • Hi Lisa,
      Sometimes in my efforts to widen my horizons I go beyond my limits which is what happened here. 🙂

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      • Yes, that happened to me recently too. There are only two or three books I wish I’d never read, and it’s because the nastiness is hard to dislodge from my mind.

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        • I used to have a four-star rating system for novels. For a long time, the lowest rating I gave a novel was two stars. Then I read ‘Breakfast of Champions’ by Kurt Vonnegut, and that was a novel I considered was both nasty and dumb. It was my only one-star novel for a long time.

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