ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong

From the Jacket

ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read.  Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born—a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam—and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation.  At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity.  Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

My Thoughts

A magical thing happens when a poet writes a novel: you get a story dripping with masterful language like Ocean Vuong’s ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS.  It is full of lines and paragraphs with sentiments so beautiful told, I wanted to reread it as soon as I turned the final page.  ON EARTH showcases Vuong’s literary talent and mastery of words; it is a stunningly told story that fully deserves the praise it has received.

“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.”

ON EARTH features a unique storytelling format: it is a letter written from a son to a mother who cannot read.  It reads like a memoir, or at least a true story–it made me question if our unnamed narrator, nicknamed “Little Dog,” is meant to be Vuong himself, as they share so many distinctly recognizable characteristics.  And yet, what does it mean for a son to write a letter to his illiterate mother?  Little Dog discloses so many details I can’t imagine telling my mother–of intimate sexual experiences, etc.–perhaps only because his mother will not understand a word of it.  Still, why not write for himself, without addressing his words to anyone?

“They say nothing lasts forever but they’re just scared it will last longer than they can love it.”

ON EARTH’s narrative is, at first, extremely fragmented, then comes to tell the story of Little Dog’s sexuality and his first relationship, the horrible way it ended.  Vuong depicts a variety of human struggles including Little Dog’s personal identity crisis and his friends’ battles with narcotics.  He moves from light Tiger Woods analogies directly to a serious, somber tone in 0.1 seconds, but I was so enthralled that I barely noticed the shift.  ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS feels intensely personal and tragic; it is a beautiful book full of beautiful language, and I feel blessed to have been in Vuong’s head for some 200 pages.

Further Reading

“Ocean Vuong’s Life Sentences” by Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker
“Survival as a Creative Force: An Interview with Ocean Vuong” by Spencer Quong, The Paris Review

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