“On Earth We Were Briefly Gorgeous,” is a unique story with an even more unique approach and style by poet Ocean Vuong. The novel is written as a letter from a son, at the time in his late 20s, to his mother who is illiterate. The letter/story, the narrator-protagonist called Little Dog, reflects back on his life as the son born to a Vietnam immigrant single mother who scrapes by as a nail salon worker. Throughout, he gives images of harsh upbringing and struggles financially and sexually, and lack of acceptance. The harsh background was due in part to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother, a pattern carried on because she too had been abused throughout her life in Vietnam. It’s as if when she beats him, she is in a trance and unaware of what she is doing and the toll it will take on his young life.
In his teen years, Little Dog, has a connection and friendship with a white classmate, Trevor, who too comes from a one-parent household, and also victimized by that parent, his father. Trevor’s father is a tough, macho type of guy, who is also bitter and an alcoholic, often going off on his son in fits of drunken rages. It doesn’t take long for Trevor and Little Dog’s friendship to deepen, giving way to first time sexual experiences for them both. While Little Dog falls in love, it is uncertain that Trevor adopts such feelings, or allows himself too. Either way, their sexual relationship and any romantic feelings, remain a secret. That is until Little Dog confesses to his mother, all the while anticipating banishment as a result. Given his cultural background, steeped in homophobia, and his mother’s background, steeped in over-sensitivity and abusiveness, he broaches the subject with trepidation.
“Sometimes, when I’m careless, I think survival is easy: you just keep moving forward with what you have, or what’s left of what you were given, until something changes- or you realize, at last that you can change without disappearing, that all you had to do was wait until the storm passes you over and you find that-yes- your name is still attached to a living thing.
A few months before our talk at Dunkin Donuts, a fourteen-year-old boy in rural Vietnam had acid thrown in his face after he slipped a love letter into a classmate’s locker. Last summer, twenty-eight-year-old Florida native Omar Mateen walked into an Orlando nightclub, raised his automatic rifle, and opened fire. Forty-nine people were killed. It was a gay club and the boys, because that’s who they were- sons, teeenagers- looked like me: a colored thing born of one mother, rummaging the dark, each other, for joy.”
The pages are filled with rumination on being beat down by life and survival, as well as really seeing each other, and the importance of rescuing one another. Stylistically, it often bounces in and out of thoughts and rhythms, more liken to stream of consciousness writing than a traditional format or pattern. By design, and unapologetically, there is no plot. There is also no means to an end or “gotcha” moments. Some will find that beautiful and appealing, while others might find it a bit contrived and too tricky to navigate. Either way, do not be fooled by the books brevity. Clocking in at just under 250 pages, it’s still not a quick, easy read. On one hand it’s a statement on a mother-son relationship fraught with both love and troubles, but on the other, it boldly goes into literary territories exploring issues of race, class and sexuality, without supplying solutions. It also has sections of graphic violence and sex, both appropriate to the story. it is not surprising that Ocean’s background is rooted in poetry and “On Earth We Were Briefly Gorgeous,” would serve as his transition into literary fiction. It’s an impressive debut novel with a distinctive voice that will not be for everyone, but sure to be appreciated by m