Wow, consuming Ocean Vuong’s debut novel was quite the experience. Every sentence packs a punch. Every image is super charged and electric. In short, I absolutely loved it.
Written as a letter to his mother, the novel is fragmented and rich – just the way I like my prose. Memories of childhood are threaded through Little Dog’s thoughts of Vietnam and America, and how his identity is stuck somewhere between the two.
I love the way he writes. How he uses repetition and simplicity to great effect. Just look at this gorgeous passage:
I am writing to you from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son.
And this one, which made me pause when I read it:
…Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.
Little Dog’s relationship with his mother is as complicated as the war they have come from. She beats and injures him. She, and her mother Lan, are damaged from their past. But you understand that this is a part of how she loves him. The point is that they love each other, but can never fully understand each other. Not when she can’t read. They grow up in different countries and cultures. Little Dog’s propensity for English – his words – are taking him further away from his mother. She will not be able to read everything he is telling her, and he knows that.
The other defining relationship for Little Dog is that with Trevor – the all-American tobacco worker who doesn’t want to be labelled as gay, despite his relationship with Little Dog. Here, Vuong speak of masculinity, perhaps the toxic kind, but also of a kind of love – violent and subtle. When Trevor dies of an overdose, Little Dog travels back from college to attend the funeral.
“I move as if I’m late to myself, as if I’m catching up.” writes Vuong. “But Trevor is no longer a destination.” In the map of his life, another area has been erased. His relationship with Trevor was rooted in their both being in Hartford, but now Little Dog is no longer there. In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous you can never escape the places you’ve come from.
I read a review of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous that described Vuong’s prose as ‘affected’. I do get that, and sometimes found myself struggling to understand the meaning Vuong was reaching for in his imagery. But Vuong is a poet at heart. He’s allowed to be affected. He’s allowed to ask questions perhaps he doesn’t even understand.
This is memoir and fiction together, poetry in prose. It’s unique and powerful. I, for one, am along for the ride.