ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong is a novel, but I had to remind myself that it was not autobiography or memoir again and again. The raw depth of Vuong’s honest language is gutting; I read it in small bites and with many breaks for my own emotional well being. It’s beautiful. It’s traumatic. It’s a sacrifice on the part of both the author and the reader. It is delicious in its love and hurt and connection. It’s a must read. And having read it, I’m tempted to also listen to the audiobook.
The novel is dense. It tangles trauma from war, beatings from a parent, racism, homophobia, drug abuse and death, perseverance, curiosity, sex and longing, first love, loss, poverty, the immigrant experience, survival, secrets, regret, and memory. So much memory across the generations. Through narration from the narrator, referred to fondly as “Little Dog,” the novel reads as though it’s meant only for the main character’s English-illiterate mother, although several times the narrator doubts she will ever do so. The descriptions, meant for a mother, are familiar and intimately detailed, and reader is not considered; all is as it should be.
Vuong’s poetic mastery comes through, and the narrative, which is not always linear, is all-encompassing. A substantial section of the novel is devoted to the narrator’s friendship, love, and intimate relationship with Trevor, and the joy and pain that relationship introduced. Juxtaposed with the relationships “Little Dog” has with his mother and grandmother, we realize the intensity of the narrator’s emotions. The language drags the reader into the emotional riptides flowing through it, and the result is exhausting in the very best way. Highly recommended.
I first learned of ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS via a Weekend Edition interview. It’s worth a listen.