Wednesday, January 15, 2020
Read by Ocean Vuong
Published June 2019 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: my audiobook copy from my local library
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.
This has been a tough review for me to write. I finished the book a couple of weeks before I started to write this then read a couple more books and the holidays came and it's a little blurry for me now. But, also, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this book.
I knew as I was reading On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous that it would end up on best-of lists for 2019 and it has. For good reason; Vuong is a poet and it shows in his beautiful writing. All of your senses are brought into play - tastes, smells, and touch stimuli are vividly written. To be honest, some of it was a bit too vivid for me and I suspect I'm not alone in being uncomfortable with some of it. But, as the Time reviewer said, Vuong is daring and "goes where the hurt is." The parts that made me uncomfortable are also the parts that most show Little Dog's vulnerability.
The reviewer for The New Yorker called this book "auto fiction" because the book is largely the story of Vuong's life; it's a deeply personal book that feels almost as though there were things Vuong needed to say to his own mother as much as it is a story about a writer looking back on his life and writing to his mother. Which actually brings me to a problem I had with the book (and I'm not alone in this) - Little Dog is writing a letter to a woman who can't read which means he isn't really writing a letter to his mother so much as just putting in writing things he wants to say. That being said, the writing goes back and forth between something that one would write in a letter and a novel. It sometimes made things complicated to follow.
But I go back to the writing - it's so good and the story touches on so many topics. One that really stuck out for me was war. Because the family is from Vietnam, of course that's the most obvious example. But Vuong also takes on the war of drug addiction and the war that often wages between our feelings for family. Little Dog loves and depends on his mother but she is also physically abusive, leaving him with complicated feelings for her, feelings so many people battle with. If you're up for a book that is difficult, emotionally, to read, I would recommend this one for the writing alone andVuong reading the book definitely enhances the book.
As for that wonderful title, The Guardian had this to say about that:
"The essential gesture of the novel is there in its title: in early youth, somewhere beyond the margins of conventional society, there’s a brief authentic flowering of life and happiness, which can’t be carried forward into disappointing, grown-up, settled existence. That nostalgic pattern so characteristic of US fiction, whose archetypal expression comes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, exists in interesting counterpoise with the shape of Lan and Rose’s stories, their ungorgeous youth, their war trauma and blunt humour, the sheer dogged persistence and will to survive that carry them into emigration and the future."