Few pieces of art create a sense of awe within me. Terrence Malick’s films, especially Tree of Life, do. So do Rilke’s poems and letters, and the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Roberto Bolano. But it’s a rare experience. In fact, I cannot remember the last novel I loved passionately until I read Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It is a stunningly beautiful novel, which created that sense of awe within me that I have not felt for years.
The story is simple enough. A Vietnamese-American man writes a letter to his immigrant mother. He recalls her PTSD and abuse toward him. He remembers his grandmother who affectionately nicknames him “Little Dog.” He remembers his first sexual affair as a teenager with another man. People pass away. He grows older. He reflects on meaning and death.
Nothing about that plot description is fantastical or instantly intriguing. But the novel isn’t really about story. It’s first and foremost about language, and how that language evokes all those feelings which are buried deep in our unconscious in daily life: melancholy, connection, lust, grief, love. It is about living moment to moment in a world where there is so much beauty and suffering all wrapped up into individual moments. Its words left me in a trance. Take this passage describing Monarch Butterflies,
“Migration can be triggered by the angle of sunlight, indicating a change in the season, temperature, plant life, and food supply. Female monarchs lay eggs along the route. Every history has more than one thread, each thread a story of division. The journey takes four thousand eight hundred and thirty miles, more than the length of this country. The monarchs that fly south will not make it back north. Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return; only the future revisits the past.”
Like all great literature, Vuong manages to make the mundane into something resplendent and beautiful, to make what is ineffable and unknowable into something coherent and alluring. It connects the experience of living with the experience of dying. It looks into the face of decay and sees something spiritual,
“We try to preserve life, even when we know it has no chance of enduring its body. We feed it, keep it comfortable, bathe it, medicate it, caress it, even sing to it. We tend to these basic functions not because we are brave or selfless but because, like breath, it is the most fundamental act of our species: to sustain the body until time leaves it behind.”
More than anything it is narrative poetry. To try and read it for a propulsive plot would be a mistake. It’s a novel to linger over, to read sentences out loud over and over. It is a novel to cry over but also a novel to make you slow down, look outside and feel connected to nature and touch, and above all else, love.
It has its flaws, of course. While the language is mostly stunning and exquisitely written, it is also at times overwrought and overwritten. I would read some passages over and over again, trying to decipher the language game of Vuong’s narrator but never fully grasping what he was trying to say. (Of course, it’s possible I’m just not smart enough to understand some of the images!)
And I do wish we had a little more story about the narrator. I wanted to know more about his school experience, for example, especially considering he was a short Vietnamese kid who didn’t speak much. As an Asian-American myself, I understand that focusing on one’s race in writing can feel forced. As DuBois discusses about African-Americans and race, people of color are afflicted with Double Consciousness. As DuBois states in The Soul of Black Folks,
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
For an Asian-American writer like Vuong, it is hard to not feel this in writing. It’s not enough to just write a beautiful novel, but because he is Asian in a white world, he has to be hyperaware of his otherness. Vuong threads the needle beautifully, for the most part, using Vietnamese idioms and relationships with his mother and grandmother with beauty and grace. But I do think Vuong shies away from it in other areas of the novel where it could have been illuminating. Because Asian-Americans have so few voices in popular culture, I would have loved to see how the narrator’s Asianess colored his views of his lover, but also his friendships in school with white and black people in his life.
That being said, my complaints did not take away from my overall feeling of the novel. It is a book I will revisit many more times in my life. Go read it now.