Ocean Vuong: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

I loved his poetry collection for its astonishing use of lyricism and twisting of classicalism (like in the incredible Telemachus) so I was very excited to get my hands on this. I heard him read at Toppings in Bath and knew from the short extract this was going to be something special – the delicacy of his writing and emotional suckerpunches prevalent in his poetry had translated beautifully into the prose extract he opened the reading with.

 

There are so many layers to this novel. On the surface it could be classified as a bildungsroman, exploring the relationship between mother and son, the coming of age and moving away – but it’s also about belonging, about language, about the underbelly of society that is so frequently ignored. 

 

It opens as a letter to his mother and we see the importance of language to the narrator. Language features heavily – his love for it but also how it’s a barrier for his mother. There’s a very moving scene where his mother is trying to buy oxtail and is laughed at, which galvanises him to learn it so his mother never feels so ridiculed again. 

 

It moves chronologically, and the first part of the novel takes us back to Vietnam to explore his grandmother’s story and how difficult life was for a young Vietnamese mother with a half-American child. The scene where his grandmother faces down the GIs at the entrance to her village is chilling in the minutiae of the detail – presented without judgement, without direction, we are given the poet’s viewpoint and allowed to draw our own emotions from the description.

 

As the story progresses, we see the difficulty of their relationship – but again, it’s painted without judgement. Even though some of the sections of physical violence are difficult to read, Vuong paints her as a woman in a very difficult situation, a Vietnamese immigrant scraping a living in America, unwanted, an outsider. There’s an intimacy between son and mother, the way he massages her, she flinging a bra “heavy with sweat” aside.

 

Although there are many lyrical passages, Vuong takes a different approach for some of the more important sequences. The matter-of-fact way in which his mother explains she had an abortion is shocking – as is the manner in which she accepts his homosexuality. There is no space for sentiment here – the language is brutal, functional and the impact heightened by the contrast with the lyricism that we see elsewhere.

 

The middle section of the book has his relationship with Trevor as the central focus. 14 years old, ‘Little Dog’ works on a tobacco farm and falls for Trevor, the owner’s grandson, a troubled young man with an abusive father. The physical side is explored in graphic detail. As with his relationship with his mother, there is a lot of violence here – Trevor isn’t accepting of his sexuality and the physicality is brutal. 

 

As he leaves Trevor to go to university, the snippets of philosophy begin to increase in volume. When talking about language in the early sections, he references a lot of Barthes, but after leaving Connecticut, his narrative becomes more introspective as the speaker explores his own philosophies: “I read that beauty has historically demanded replication”.

 

The later sections are much less narrative in tone or style. One of the most interesting sections is the one between last seeing Trevor and going back for his funeral. Here, the structure changes dramatically and we see the poet’s skill in using form – a collage of memories of the boy he loved tumbling on top of one another. 

 

In the last section, the speaker returns to his mother and the structure remains less narrative, more fractured thoughts, with the narrator trying to make sense of the world, translating his artist’s view for his mother in terms she can understand  “In a world myriad as ours, the gaze is a singular act: to look at something is to fill your whole life with it, if only briefly.” We move back into narrative as his grandmother approaches death. The description of the way her blood moves from the toes as she dies is incredibly powerful.

 

The narrative tone is benign and curious  – despite the violence in the speaker’s most significant relationships, there is a lot of tenderness in his depiction of his loved ones. There’s a real sense that Vuong is trying to give the underbelly of America a voice, shine a light on those people living on the fringes and present them not as victims – or villains – but simply as they are. We see this in the way he casually mentions all of the other itinerant workers at the tobacco farm – and how they are always saying sorry. But this has also taken its toll, as we see towards the end as he discusses medication, addiction, losing friends who had no hope:

“The thing is, I don’t want my sadness to be othered from me just as I don’t want my happiness to be othered. They’re both mine. I made them, dammit.” 

 

As Vuong moves the narrative back to the letter, we come to the climactic point – what does it mean to be a writer? ‘Little Dog’ wants his mother to understand and presents a list of responses varying in eloquence, but my favourite is this: “I made it down. That’s what writing is, after all the nonsense, getting down so low the world offers a merciful new angle, a larger vision made of small things, the lint suddenly a huge sheet of fog exactly the size of your eyeball.”

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