Ocean Vuong's Debut Novel Only Partly Compelling

On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous (2019)
By Ocean Vuong
Penguin, 256 pages.

As is often the case with art, reputation sometimes leads critics by the nose ring like so many bulls being chained to a post. On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous has been lavishly praised by reviewers, though reader comments have been mixed. Score one for the readers. This is a bittersweet novel that is filled with lovely poetic passages. Note the adjective “poetic.” Ocean Vuong is a brilliant poet whose Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016) staggered me. It also garnered numerous awards and Vuong was given a MacArthur “genius” grant. Had I never read his poetry or known his biography, I would have been more impressed by On Earth, his debut novel. As it is, I too have mixed feelings.

In brief, the 31-year-old Vuong was born in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon). His grandfather is a white GI, and that spells trouble in postwar Vietnam. Racism is a universal problem and Vietnam’s version has a unique dimension. Under Vietnamese law, mixed race individuals are restricted to menial jobs; they are also ostracized by other Vietnamese. Because of discrimination, Vuong, his grandmother, mother, siblings, and two other relatives left and made their way to a Filipino refugee camp before immigrating to Hartford, Connecticut, when Ocean was just two-years-old. His mother worked in nail salons and Ocean, the first to gain English literacy, often acted as the ears, voice, and advocate for a household of women. (His grandfather tried to return to Vietnam, but Saigon fell to the communists. He returned to the States, married, and started a new family.)

You already know this if you’ve read the Night Sky poems. You also know of Vuong’s deep bonds with his grandmother, his sometimes-violent clashes with his mother, and of his openly gay identity. On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous isn’t really a novel; it is a thinly disguised autobiography. He is “Little Dog” in the novel, his mother is the illiterate Hong (“Rose”), Lan is his grandmother and primary role model, and Paul the man he comes to call “grandfather.” Little Dog grows up as an American boy in love with popular culture, fast food, rock music, and other such external accoutrements of Western capitalism. He is also the first-person narrator of two interlocking tales, both of which are structured as a letter to his mother.

The first is his investigation of what happened in Vietnam, a place he does not remember. This entails unveiling his grandmother’s tale–she a rural farm girl who performed occasional acts of prostitution to help her family until she met, fell in love with, and married an American GI. As noted, she didn’t get out before Saigon fell and her husband had no way of contacting her. For all he knew, she was dead. (There are several twists in this story that I will not spoil.)

The second part is more of a confessional. Little Dog has a summer job working on a Connecticut River tobacco farm owned by the family of a boy named “Trevor.” He’s of the classic American type one might label “bad boy.” Trevor smokes, uses drugs, and is prone to indolence; he is also Little Dog’s first lover and the one who opens the hidden door to same-sex desire. This part of the book is visceral and occasionally sexually graphic. There is a sort of coda in which summertime love yields to the passing of the seasons and a parting of ways on various ways (emotionally, intellectually, aspirationally).

There is an elegiac tone to Vuong’s novel, one whose sadness is thinly masked as regret, misty longing, melancholy, reservation, and ex post facto reflection. Such things yearn for a poetic touch and Vuong is certainly in his element in such matters. This is the kind of book that lends itself to pull-out passages of astonishingly beautiful imagery. There are, in my mind, no hard-fast requirements for what makes a book a work of fiction. It’s more like a sniff test, and On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is infused with an odor of contrivance. I found myself wondering why Vuong didn’t simply call it a memoir and be done with it.

Vuong’s command of language and his willingness to lay bare his soul are deeply moving. His skill is such that it’s hard to call this a failed novel. Ultimately, though, there is a flatness to its arc. The two halves are forced together with crinkly tape that fails to secure differently shaped stories that are less compatible on the page than in Vuong’s mind. What remains to be seen is how Vuong handles a novel in which he is not a Zelig-like protagonist. Can he allow his imagination to break free from autobiography?

Rob Weir

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