By Ocean Vuong
A story of identity, of family, of wanting to belong and wondering how that happens, it's all in the brilliant debut novel of Ocean Vuong.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is Little Dog's story. He is the son and grandson of Vietnamese immigrants. His grandfather was an American soldier in Vietnam. We see and hear him as a child, as a teenager, and as a young man coming into his own. His life is not easy. His mother is abusive. She also is trying hard not to be broken. His grandmother was broken, but she survived and they are all in America together. Little Dog, his mother and grandmother do a lot of things together. It's fascinating to read about a family that spends that much time together, sometimes in harmony and sometimes not, and still they don't know everything about each other. And even when they have done something hurtful to one of them, they still love each other and do not abandon each other.
But before the reader gets into the specifics of the story, what is shown is the author's skill as a poet. Ocean Vuong has published poetry before writing this novel, and he uses his art to draw the reader into the world of his characters. Here, Little Dog is writing to his mother, who never learned to read:
I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn't trying to make a sentence -- I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.
Oh! Who is the hunter? Is the prey running toward anything? Are we all hunter and all prey, depending on where others are in relation to us? Little Dog's life shows that the answers vary as different people come into our lives and by the way we respond to them, and they respond to us.
Even though his mother hits him, Little Dog goes to work at the nail salon with her, spending hours watching her, the other women working and their customers. These hours show him how demeaning people can be to each other:
In the nail salon, sorry is a tool one uses to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer merely apologizes, but insists, reminds: I'm here, right here, beneath you. It is the lowering of oneself so that the client feels right, superior, and charitable. ... Being sorry pays, being sorry even, or especially, when one has no fault, is worth every self-deprecating syllable the mouth allows. Because the mouth must eat.
Being closer, having both he and his mother healed, is a big part of what drives Little Dog. There was a time when she bought coloring book after coloring book, spending hours filling in the pages. She asks her son:
"Have you ever made a scene," you said, filling in a Thomas Kinkade house, "and then put yourself inside it? Have you ever watched yourself from behind, going further and deeper into that landscape, away from you?"
How could I tell you that what you were describing was writing? How could I say that we, after all, are so close, the shadows of our hands, on two different pages, merging?
What a deep recognition of how we are tied to our parents, regardless of anything else about them, about us, about our circumstances. We are tied together. We are each other's shadows.
How close people can be to each other, and not see each other clearly, was brought home to this reader by this passage:
You once told me that the human eye is god's loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn't even know there's another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty.
That passage also describes the way Little Dog feels about the first person he chose to be with outside of his family.
Although his family core is essential to his identity, it is not sustaining. As a teenager, working a physically demanding summer job harvesting tobacco with migrant workers, Little Dog meets his first love.
Trevor is the grandson of the landowner where Little Dog has become one of the harvesting crew. He enjoys being one among the other men, whether they can communicate well in words or not. He is growing up and becoming his own person. The friendship, then love, with Trevor makes Little Dog more himself. The way Vuong describes the incredible changes to Little Dog as he sees those changes, as the sun of a new time in his life dawns, is riveting and delightful:
Who are you, I thought to myself as I worked the brakes.
When I felt then, however, was not desire, but the coiled charge of its possibility, a feeling that emitted, it seemed, its own gravity, holding me in place. ... I was seen -- I who had seldom been seen by anyone. I who was taught, by you, to be invisible in order to be safe ...
In one conversation, Trevor notes that Cleopatra looked at the same sun that we do today. And it is noted that if you are the sun, you don't see your own beauty. But beauty matters:
Maybe we look into mirrors not merely to seek beauty, regardless how illusive, but to make sure, despite the facts, that we are still here.
Little Dog leaves their small Connecticut town to go to school, becoming a poet. He and Trevor maybe never were a couple, and their relationship does not last. But they did spend time together, time that mattered a great deal to Little Dog then and, he knows, will always matter to him. That time will always be precious, perhaps in part because it could not last:
If, relative to the history of our planet, an individual life is so short, a blink of an eye, as they say, then to be gorgeous, even from the day you're born to the day you die, is to be gorgeous only briefly. ...
Because the sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.
Oh, that early passage about the distance between the hunter and its prey. Again, the prey has more than one function. Little Dog believes he is the prey. But there is also the hunting for love, of belonging, of knowing who you are. In that, Little Dog is the hunter. He was briefly gorgeous in his love for Trevor. Whatever else happens in his life, that happened.
Throughout the novel is the trope of monarch butterflies migrating. They bring beauty, their descendants know where to return, and they die. But oh, that beauty is stunning:
They perch among us, on windowsills and chain-link fences, clotheslines still blurred from the just-hung weight of clothes, the hood of a faded-blue Chevy, their wings folding slowly, as if being put away, before snapping once, into flight.
It only takes a single night of frost to kill off a generation. To live, then, is a matter of time, of timing.
The war certainly stayed with Little Dog's mother. He scared her once as a child, jumping out from behind a door to yell "Boo!" at her with a toy helmet on his head. Having been in a real war, she screams and goes into panic mode. He is shocked, and later figures out:
I didn't know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves -- but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son.
One of the most intense reflections from reading On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is to live with the reminder that, even though it was generations ago, what America did in Vietnam involved cruelty and an arrogance about using power. To someone who was a child during that era, to see Westerners go to Vietnam to enjoy vacations and for so many of its people to be thriving, is a shock and a delightful surprise that good times followed horrific ones. Perhaps that's a good take-away from this novel. Good times follow horrific ones. May those times follow ours now.
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