This novel, framed as a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read, is a debut for poet Ocean Vuong. The prose and the story--especially the first three-quarters--are stunning. The writing is spare--but poetic--and devastatingly insightful, with parts that caused me to pause and read them again to savor their brilliance.
The son, named Little Dog, reflects on life with his mother. She is work-worn and sometimes abusive, exhausted by her lack of a homeland, her inability to read or speak English fluently, and her mentally ill mother who was traumatized by the war. Little Dog grapples with his identity as a son, an Asian American, and a gay man experiencing his first romance with a troubled farm worker.
This fell apart for me a bit toward the end, as Vuong veered more deeply into poetic metaphor and jumped around in the story--it was harder to follow. It left me with mixed feelings about the whole thing, but the first half-plus is worth the read for the prose alone.
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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.
With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.