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On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Review

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

It’s a soft thing, bitter and tender, bigger and more intimate than most novels imagine they can be. A quiet, resonant work that sings and hums and aches off the page, full of wisdom --- sprawling both the broad scope of the story and the gems of sentences, fragments, that crack the world open and reveal something fragrant, or rotting, but true.

ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS is a novel that begins in the form of a letter addressed to Ocean Vuong’s mother, who is illiterate. It centers on the protagonist, Little Dog, but other voices and modes merge in. It explores migration, home and placelessness. War and the sharp, impossibly bloody ripples that didn’t stop when the war in Vietnam ended and haven’t, even now. Queerness, the body, the insidious manifestations of toxic masculinity. The loathing, loving navigation of being a Vietnamese boy who wants a white boy, the imbalanced shape of that desire, the white boy’s self-destruction that happened, inextricably close. And it returns, always, to his mother, the woman he came from, and the tangling, tender relationship between them.

"The work smolders off the page, graceful, and is both raw and careful at once.... This is one of the best books I’ve read in my lifetime. A masterpiece."

Vuong’s award-winning poetic ear echoes through every phrase. His writing is clean and wretched at once, ruthlessly evocative of terrible, familiar things, the parts of history and present we pretend not to remember.

Fresh, vulnerable and ceaseless, defiant of form, it blends poetry, fiction and what might be akin to memoir into something that could have become arcless but instead bends towards refrains, motifs, the absence of culmination. Vuong references, in a New York Times interview about the book, the narrative structure kishōtenketsu, the art of story without conflict. He says: “it insists that a narrative structure can survive and thrive on proximity alone. Proximity builds tension.” He manifests this expertly, propulsively creating his own cresting resonances again and again. To preserve the body in his work. The lost, the ruined, become present, if not whole. He queers genre and enacts a fluid approach to the book. The result crafts something more satisfying than a climax.

“I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck --- the pieces floating, finally legible,” he writes. A reckoning: the genesis of tenderness, of family, of love, fractured in places most white Americans don’t realize can be broken.

The work smolders off the page, graceful, and is both raw and careful at once. Vuong wields language deftly: as a vehicle through time, as the space between bodies, as a bridge spanning a wound. Yet he never forgets the presence of the wound. This is one of the best books I’ve read in my lifetime. A masterpiece.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on June 7, 2019

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
by Ocean Vuong

  • Publication Date: June 4, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press
  • ISBN-10: 0525562028
  • ISBN-13: 9780525562023