Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019)

I could lie and pretend that I’d picked this book at the library because I had heard of this up-and-coming poet or because of a glowing review in the New York Times. But the truth is that my son said that the cover art was so beautiful (the one with the golden leaves) and so I said I’d borrow it and report to him how the book was. Yeah, it was a bit random.

The story is told by a young Vietnamese-American man in his mid-twenties, who writes to his mother and reflects on his childhood. The boy is born in the U.S. but Vietnam and the war is still very much sending shockwaves into this family. There’s the trauma of war and the high cost of surviving and escaping Vietnam. But there’s also the poverty and menial jobs (the mother works at a salon doing mani and pedi) and having to deal with racism and prejudices.

Little Dog, which is the endearment name of the young man, grows up very close to his grandmother, whose mind is still stuck in Vietnam. Little Dog’s mother is not without love but she can’t read and she doesn’t speak much and she’s mostly exhausted from her job scrambling to make ends meet. There’s brutality also, and it might be tough to read because Vuong is very good at describing raw emotions. Little Dog grows up into an introvert gay young man, who falls head over heels for an All-American man, a redneck living in a trailer and working on a tobacco farm during the summer.

The best thing about this book is the language itself. It shows that Ocean Vuong is a poet. I really wanted to hold on to those beautiful sentences and images. But I didn’t really care for Little Dog. It was tragic but there wasn’t much of a compelling story. I cared about his grandmother and his mother but I learnt too little about them both. It was frustrating, and a bit embarrassing, because all along I wondered how autobiographical the story was and I felt guilty to want more. It made me think of a Vietnamese-American short story collection by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees. The language was not as gorgeous but the characters and stories packed a lot more punch.

3 thoughts on “Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019)

  1. Nothing wrong with picking a book for its cover! It is definitely pretty! I haven’t read the book but it has gotten so much buzz I feel like I almost have. Maybe I will get around to reading it sometime if for no other reason than the language.

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