This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.
Ocean Vuong has written a true poet’s novel: a painfully perceptive and achingly beautiful reflection on American otherness. This book absolutely captured me. — Keith M.
About a third of the way through poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
, the narrator observes the protagonist watching his mother through the kitchen window: “Evening had turned the glass into a mirror and you couldn’t see him there, only the lines scored across your cheeks and brow, a face somehow ravaged by stillness. The boy, he watches his mother watch nothing, his entire self inside the phantom oval of her face, invisible.” The moment encapsulates the painful paradox of all mother-child relationships: Your child is of you and for you, indistinguishable from you; and then they are not — they grow up, and the distance that self-actualization brings is irrecoverable. Isolated, these two sentences allow for a sentimental reading, but by now the reader knows that the boy’s Vietnamese mother suffers from war-induced PTSD and is violently abusive. The narrator’s — and when the narrative shifts into first person, the boy’s — willingness to imaginatively close the distance between mother and son is a radical act of love.
This kind of radical love, grounded in pain, submission, acute sensitivity, and acceptance, is the central current of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
, which takes the form of a son’s letter to his illiterate mother. On one level, the novel is the intensely personal story of Little Dog, whose precarious childhood is spent, like many Vietnamese immigrant children, in a nail salon, and of his first gay love affair; it is a coming-of-age and coming-out narrative impacted by the complications of immigration and racial and sexual otherness. On a more symbolic level, On Earth
is a compassionate survey of the American underclass, delving into poverty and manual labor (in nail salons and on farms), the emotional and political detritus of the Vietnam War for both Vietnamese and white Americans, homophobia, and most poignantly, the opioid crisis. Vuong’s descriptions of Little Dog’s mother’s backbreaking days over strangers’ hands and feet, and the pointless overdoses of his loved ones, are the most beautifully crafted scenes in the novel.
The painful themes of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
make it a difficult read, but Little Dog’s ability to absorb the blows of poverty, abuse, and alienation and convert them into clear-eyed analyses of his tormentors’ pain offers a stunning lesson in compassion. It is Little Dog’s gift and Vuong’s too, to illuminate what’s dark through the keen gaze of poetry.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here