Books

Ocean Vuong
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, takes its title from a poem in his 2016 collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds; 10 verses spoken to a past lover, freighted with the same concerns that undergird the novel – war and its legacy, the lineage of violence, the uncertain territories between love and harm, what the body wants and retains and forgives.

Poetry lends itself naturally to the epistolary form, and it seems inevitable that Vuong’s novel is an extension of as much: a book-length letter from Little Dog to his illiterate mother, intended to be read, but not by its addressee. A letter intended to be intercepted: “It could be, in writing you here, I am writing to everyone – for how can there be a private space if there is no safe space …?”

How and where do we begin the stories of our mothers, we who enter so late in the act, when mother is already part myth? Vuong’s incantatory opening pages conjure a fraught childhood through a litany of memories, each hinging on a moment of contact between Little Dog and Ma – a box of Lego hurled against a head; gentle, unsuccessful attempts to teach Ma to read English; the Goodwill prize-find of a white formal dress that Ma will never have occasion for, that her son will wear instead; Little Dog leaping from behind a door, in mimicry of American TV pranking, never anticipating its devastating effect: “I didn’t know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves – but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son. Boom.”

Like all children of those traumatised by conflict, Little Dog is burdened with the unanswerable question of how much of his mother’s selfhood, and in particular her more turbulent aspects, has been shaped by war, the spectre of which was still lingering when the family left Saigon for America in 1990. Throughout the novel, the lines between protection and damage remain blurred, in familial care as in sexual love, violence and emotional cruelty defended as a necessity for “getting stronger”. Little Dog’s name has been bestowed by his grandmother, Lan, in the Vietnamese belief – paralleled in many cultures – that to praise a child as beautiful or precious is to invoke envy and harm. To love a child is to declare the child unloveable.

Little Dog grows up in Hartford, Connecticut, a place seen keenest at the margins, clearest at night. Vuong writes of Vietnam, “It’s a beautiful country, depending on where you look”, and the same may be said of his Hartford. Depending on where you look, the deer might appear from the fog, a body from the white froth of the river, a baby retrieved from the trunk of a Nissan. Depending on where you look: the crackling woks and cauldrons of phở steaming up the back rooms of nail salons, where Ma works; Lan coaxing Little Dog down from a tree with a packet of Cool Ranch Doritos, “Your mom. She not normal, okay? She pain. She hurt.” Three generations of a family in symbiotic tableau, grandmother and grandson “clinging to a mother the size of a raft”, striving together to loosen work-knotted muscles.

A great strength of the novel is Vuong’s depiction of the minimum-wage toiling that so often takes more than it sustains, the meagre pay cheques failing to balance against long-term deficits: crooked backs; limbs injured or lost to field and factory work; lungs steadily abraded by daily inhalation of nail salon chemicals; and the ugliness of hands that have laboured too long in making those of others beautiful.

While work is given a poet’s attention, its description reads very much as a physical inhabitation, rather than a poeticising. From his work in the tobacco fields, Little Dog’s own hands are blackened until they resemble “the bottom of a pan of burned rice”, while a reader is placed close enough to breathe air tinged with the chlorophyll of a newly cut crop, to hear lungs working in chests hunched over the sweep of machetes, or the dreadful thud and hush that follow a man falling, 40 feet, from barn rafters.

In both nail salons and tobacco fields, the most common word is “sorry” and this is the word that introduces Little Dog, at age 14, to Trevor, “The boy from whom I learned there was something even more brutal and total than work – want.” In his Boston Red Sox cap and rust-red Chevy pick-up with tyres worn smooth as skin, Trevor is as much the novel’s fulcrum as Ma.

Various shades of oblivion and escape are sought amid the richness of late summer harvest, Trevor and Little Dog finding each other in dusty barns and wheat fields, or in a mobile home with a rough old man and a dollar-store reproduction of peaches on the wall. Vuong’s writing of sex recalls that of David Wojnarowicz for how it owns and offers everything, the coalescing of glory and shame and mercy and indulgence: “I wanted more, the scent, the atmosphere of him, the taste of french fries and peanut butter underneath the salve of his tongue, the salt around his neck from the two-hour drives to nowhere and a Burger King at the edge of the county …” Yet we are never intended to forget this is a letter to Ma: “I only have the nerve to tell you what comes after because the chance this letter finds you is slim.”

At points the novel loses traction, those skin-smooth tyres lifting from the earth to a ponderous omniscience – what is it to be a writer? – at the expense of the narrative’s beating pulse. With increasing frequency comes the tendency to force poignancy on what might have stood soundly enough alone, without the poeticising that is confidently absent from earlier passages.

A certain amount of this may be an instinctual amplification towards the timbre of an ending. How to sign off a letter that will never reach its destination? Perhaps there is an unwillingness to sign off at all, the end of a novel being more definitive than that of a poem, which just as often invites another poem.

Taken as its fractured, unconventional whole, this is a crackling, often remarkable debut – indeed gorgeous – that locates profound joy and agency in language, while being achingly aware of its treachery, its limits in reaching those we most desperately want to be heard by.

Josephine Rowe

Jonathan Cape, 256pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 13, 2019 as "Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Josephine Rowe