On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel

Image of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel
Release Date: 
June 4, 2019
Penguin Press
Reviewed by: 

“a gorgeously written novel about race, about class, about street life and gender and the ragged ways we have chosen to define them.”

Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, has been named one of the most anticipated books of 2019 by The Los Angeles Times, The Millions, The Guardian, Publisher’s Weekly, Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed, O, The Oprah Magazine, and others.

Here is the breathtaking way in which it begins:

“Dear Ma,

I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are. I am writing to go back to the time, at the rest stop in Virginia, when you stared, horror-struck, at the taxidermy buck hung over the soda machine by the restrooms, its antlers shadowing your face. In the car, you kept shaking your head. ‘I don’t understand why they would do that. Can’t they see it’s a corpse? A corpse should go away, not get stuck forever like that.’

“I think now of that buck, how you stared into its black glass eyes and saw your reflection, your whole body  warped in that lifeless mirror. How it was not the grotesque mounting of a decapitated animal that shook you—but that the taxidermy embodied a death that won’t finish, a death that keeps dying as we walk past it to relieve ourselves.”

From there, time travels forward and backward and sometimes in circles, appearing to repeat itself, but only in order to find a deeper truth, to highlight yet another layer just remembered or relived or reimagined in an effort to understand the inexplicable cycle of abuse in which those abused become abusers, in which the used become users.

It is structured as an extended letter from a battered only son to the mother who will never read his words because she cannot read, much in the same way she appears unable to abstain from hurting him at every turn, even into his late twenties when he writes this book of a letter to her.  

The main characters are few if you don’t count the missing, the fleeting, the abandoners (from the Old French à bandon, at will, at discretion), but each is heartbreakingly X-rayed and rendered in all their violence, their lunacy, their compulsion, their cruelty, but also with all their heartbreak, all their context, the Vietnam war and the themes of immigration and domestic violence hovering over the “why” of things as if the narrator or the author (you would be forgiven for thinking it is a memoir and not a novel) wanted to excuse it all, and to have, himself, an excuse to keep loving.

It is written in the second person, a difficult point of view to sustain for 200-plus pages, especially when the you is a real you (the mother), and not a substitute for “I,” the one-way correspondence at times reading like a ledger of brutalized innocence, the secret diary of a young man’s days as a burnt-to-the-ground spirit, as in this scene of what happens when the narrator, then an immigrant child, tells his mother of the violent bullying he had endured at his Hartford Connecticut school earlier that day:

“That night you were sitting on the couch with a towel wrapped around your head after your shower, a Marlboro Red smoldering in your hand. I stood there, holding myself.

‘Why?’ You stared hard at the TV.

You stabbed the cigarette into your teacup and I immediately regretted saying anything. ‘Why’d you let them do that? Don’t close your eyes. You’re not sleepy.’

You put your eyes on me, blue smoke swirling between us.

‘What kind of boy would let them do that?’ Smoke leaked from the corners of your mouth. ‘You did nothing.’ You shrugged. ‘Just let them.’

I thought of the window again, how everything seemed like a window, even the air between us.

You grabbed my shoulders, your forehead pressed fast to my own. ‘Stop crying. You’re always crying!’ You were so close I could smell the ash and toothpaste between your teeth. ‘Nobody touched you yet. Stop crying—I said stop, dammit!’

The third slap that day flung my gaze to one side, the TV screen flashed before my head snapped back to face you. Your eyes darted back and forth across my face.” 

This scene is a good illustration of Vuong’s mastery in choosing the second person to bring the raw intensity needed to render real the highly emotional world of this, his first foray into fiction. It works because it is not used as a gimmick. It is not an exercise in creative writing. Here, instead, it is the only possible point of view for a novel whose narrator must denounce at full-scream, unflinchingly confronting his torturer on the page. 

And so On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is, indeed, a gorgeously written novel about race, about class, about street life and gender and the ragged ways we have chosen to define them.

In narrating the days of a sad bewildered childhood and its subsequent coming of age into a world just as hardened and difficult as the place from which it sprang, Voung creates a world of scenes that, together, function as a crushing example of what kindness must endure to survive cruelty and of the, sometimes, hopeless odds of the human enterprise.

It is also a novel about family, about survival and displacement, about drugs, identity, and love that endures. But, perhaps, most of all, it is a book about the grueling lifelong exercise of forgiving ourselves by forgiving our parents:

“That’s so good to know, baby. You stared off, stone-faced, over my shoulder, the dress held to your chest. “That’s so good.

“You’re a mother, Ma. You’re also a monster. But so am I—which is why I can’t turn away from you. Which is why I have taken god’s loneliest creation and put you inside it.