On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Poet Ocean Vuong's debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of storytelling.On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family's history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is root...

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Title:On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
Author:Ocean Vuong
Rating:
Edition Language:English

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Reviews

  • anna (readingpeaches)

    (i want to tattoo

    on my ribs but it's cool, i'm cool abt it)

    Ocean Vuong is first & foremost a poet and

    is his literary debut (he also has a poem by the same title). It’s not a

    novel, though, not in this very Western sense we’re all used to. There are no prominent arcs or villains, or any ascending tensi

    (i want to tattoo

    on my ribs but it's cool, i'm cool abt it)

    Ocean Vuong is first & foremost a poet and

    is his literary debut (he also has a poem by the same title). It’s not a

    novel, though, not in this very Western sense we’re all used to. There are no prominent arcs or villains, or any ascending tension. It’s described as a letter from a son to his mother & that’s how it reads, but you could also call it a memoir and not be too far off the mark.

    The book is divided intro three sections, none of them with titles, apart from simple Roman numbers. But their themes are obvious nonetheless (being an immigrant in the US, being gay, dying) and they're overflowing with emotions. You can’t really forget that Vuong is a poet, with how beautifully crafted this novel is. He doesn’t often name things, instead lets himself be vague with metaphors & trusts the reader will understand what he’s getting at anyway. The whole experience is a lot like reading a poem, but this isn’t just a novel in verse & it’s not just a letter, either. It blurs the lines and it does it without you even noticing.

    Just like everything Vuong published so far,

    is very raw, visceral even and vicious at times. But all the feelings (pain) it evokes ring true. That’s the real strength of Vuong’s novel: the honesty evident not only in the emotions it brings to life, but in the life itself that it describes; all the ups-and-downs, all the ugly details, all the not-poetry-like details. There’s no shying away from the mundanity of life here, from parts the fairy tales (and porn) omit.

    TW: on page death, child abuse, drugs, war descriptions, homophobia, animal violence,

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  • Trish

    This work is called a novel but it is a ball of flame tossed into a dark night, blinding, brilliant, searing. Who knows if it is poetry or novel or memoir; the language fills the mouth and is saturated with truth. We recognize it. We’ve tasted it. We are pained by it. It still hurts.

    Something here is reminiscent of the epic poetry of Homer. Life's brutality, man’s frailty, the odyssey, the clash of civilizations, the incomparable language undeniably capturing human experience, these things make

    This work is called a novel but it is a ball of flame tossed into a dark night, blinding, brilliant, searing. Who knows if it is poetry or novel or memoir; the language fills the mouth and is saturated with truth. We recognize it. We’ve tasted it. We are pained by it. It still hurts.

    Something here is reminiscent of the epic poetry of Homer. Life's brutality, man’s frailty, the odyssey, the clash of civilizations, the incomparable language undeniably capturing human experience, these things make Vuong someone who heightens our awareness, deepens our experience, shocks us into acknowledgement of our shared experiences. What have we in common with a Greek of ancient times singing of a war and the personal trials of man? What have we in common with a gay immigrant boy writing of war and the personal trials of man?

    The story is clear enough but fragmentary. In a Nov 2017

    , Vuong tells us

    The novel he speaks of is this one. I did not understand that paragraph when I first read it as well as I do now. I am more aware, too, having looked closely for the Western world’s acknowledged historical tendency to erase or ignore pieces of experience not congruent with their own worldview.

    The language Vuong brings is exquisite and extraordinary: “The fluorescent hums steady above them, as if the scene is a dream the light is having.” “…the thing about beauty is that it’s only beautiful outside of itself.” “The carpet under his bare feet is shiny as spilled oil from years of wear.” “…repeating piles of rotted firewood, the oily mounds gone mushy…” “He had a thick face and pomaded hair, even at this hour, like Elvis on on his last day on earth.”

    Vuong repeats motifs to tie the experiences of one person to the rest of his life, to tie one person’s experiences to those of others: “I’m at war.” “We cracked up. We cracked open.” “…you never see yourself if you’re the sun. You don’t even know where you are in the sky.” “…my cheek bone stinging from the first blow.” “I was yellow.”

    A teen, immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam with his mother, grandmother, and aunt finds himself fleeing his “shitty high school to spend [his] days in New York lost in library stacks,” from whence he, first in this family to go to college, squanders his opportunity on an English degree.

    The teen discovers his gayness and does not flee it, though his white lover agonizes and denies all his life. We watch that boy fall, wither, die under the scourge of fentanyl and opioid addiction and Vuong places the scourge in the wider context of an awry world.

    Despite (or perhaps because of) the fragmented, shattered nature of the tale, there is a real momentum to this novel, Vuong telling us things not articulated in this way before: a familiar war from a new angle, the friction burn of the immigrant experience, the roughness of gay sex, the madness of living untethered in the world. The language is so precise, so surprising, so wide-awake and fresh, that we read to see.

    Last year, in September of 2018, I reviewed Vuong’s first book of poetry,

    . The poems had many of the same tendencies toward epic poetry—they were big, and meaningful.

    I have attached a short video of Vuong reading from that collection to give you some idea of his power. You're welcome, readers.

  • Ron Charles

    May 31 marks the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth, and the best present we could possibly receive is Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” The connection between the Good Gray Poet and this young Vietnamese immigrant may seem tenuous, but with his radical approach to form and his daring mix of personal reflection, historical recollection and sexual exploration, Vuong is surely a literary descendant of the author of “Leaves of Grass.” Emerging from the most margin

    May 31 marks the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth, and the best present we could possibly receive is Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” The connection between the Good Gray Poet and this young Vietnamese immigrant may seem tenuous, but with his radical approach to form and his daring mix of personal reflection, historical recollection and sexual exploration, Vuong is surely a literary descendant of the author of “Leaves of Grass.” Emerging from the most marginalized circumstances, he has produced a lyrical work of self-discovery that’s shockingly intimate and insistently universal.

    The fact that we can hear Vuong’s voice today in America stems from a function of tragedy and serendipity. As Vuong explains in his 2016 poetry collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” his grandfather was a U.S. soldier who found a farm girl in Vietnam. “Thus my mother exists,” he writes. “Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.”

    That willingness to solve the equation of his own existence, no matter what its components, is a. . . .

  • Diane Barnes

    No review. Just a list of adjectives.

    Brutal

    Raw

    Devastating

    Beautiful

    Incandescent

    Stunning

    The author didn't write this book; he opened his heart and just let it bleed all over the pages. Reading it cracked mine open and turned me inside out.

    Just a sample: "Did you know people get rich off of sadness? I want to meet the millionaire of American sadness. I want to look him in the eye, shake his hand, and say, "Its been an honor to serve my country".

  • Angela M

    This is such a beautiful book title and it was the title that drew me to read the description and request a copy of it. Not only is the title beautiful, but much of the writing here is as well. It’s described as literary fiction, but a brief look at Ocean Vuong’s bio after I read this book made the biographical nature of the story striking. This letter from a young Vietnamese immigrant to his mother who doesn’t know how to read is raw, impactful, achingly sad, painful to read. It is filled with

    This is such a beautiful book title and it was the title that drew me to read the description and request a copy of it. Not only is the title beautiful, but much of the writing here is as well. It’s described as literary fiction, but a brief look at Ocean Vuong’s bio after I read this book made the biographical nature of the story striking. This letter from a young Vietnamese immigrant to his mother who doesn’t know how to read is raw, impactful, achingly sad, painful to read. It is filled with flashbacks to his childhood when he is bullied at school, physically abused by his mother, protected by his grandmother. It is filled with stories and memories of his mother and grandmother’s past fleeing Vietnam as their pasts become part of his story.

    It is about a love between a mother and son. It is a story of a young boy trying to find his place in this country. It’s an intimate portrait of his first relationship as he falls in love with another boy. (A warning to those who might be bothered by explicit sex scenes. You’ll find them here.) The vivid descriptions of the times he spent in the nail salon where his mother worked were eye opening. There’s drug addiction. There are also poignant moments reflecting his love of his mother and grandmother. The stream of consciousness felt a bit disjointed in last part feeling more like random thoughts , and it lacked the cohesiveness of the earlier part for me., thus 4 instead of 5 stars. This book is not for everyone, but it’s worth reading for the beautiful language and amazing portrait of the Vietnamese immigrant experience, for the intimate piece of his heart and soul that this writer shares .

    I received an advanced copy of this book from Penguin Press through Edelweiss.

  • Marchpane

    Books by poets always have the best titles, don’t they?

    , acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, takes the form of a letter from Little Dog to his mother, both Vietnamese refugees now living in the U.S. This poignant, lyrical story more than delivers on the promise of that striking title.

    Books by poets always have the best titles, don’t they?

    , acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, takes the form of a letter from Little Dog to his mother, both Vietnamese refugees now living in the U.S. This poignant, lyrical story more than delivers on the promise of that striking title.

    It is an emotionally affecting tale wrought with a poet’s artistry. Little Dog translating for his mother on their awkward outings together; his grandmother’s experiences during the war in Vietnam (

    ); Little Dog’s first love and adolescent fumblings with farm boy Trevor. I was glued to the page, though it isn’t what you would normally call a page-turner. Violence and trauma permeate throughout, and this does not make for an ‘easy’ read, yet I could not put it down. There are also many tender moments, and even humour too.

    Little Dog’s relationship with his mother is not the sole focus – rather this is a coming-of-age (and coming-out) story, woven with family history. Little Dog’s knowledge that his mother, with her limited education & grasp of English, will never read his words frees up the narrative and allows Vuong to deviate from the second-person voice when the story requires it.

    The many moving and memorable scenes don’t quite cohere the way a more traditional novel would. Figurative language abounds, much of it stunning, but the odd passage jarred and jolted me out of the narrative (

    ). Vuong’s portrait of Little Dog, Hong and Lan is overlaid with a filigree of intricate prose: the effect is pretty, but it makes it difficult to see them clearly, a fact made more frustrating by the utterly compelling nature of their stories.

    Some essayistic digressions are slightly incongruous. The first, about Tiger Woods’ family history, draws out connections to Little Dog’s story, exploring racial identity in the American context, and Woods’ father’s involvement in the Vietnam war. The second, a series of factoids about Purdue Pharma, provides background to the opioid crisis that devastates Little Dog’s social circle, but its insertion feels unnecessary: this is information most readers will already know.

    is a novel that asserts itself defiantly – to take exception with its many idiosyncrasies feels churlish. As Vuong plays with language and syntax in order to blend poetic and novelistic techniques, he blurs the boundaries between the two forms. Someone who reads more poetry than I do would surely find it easier to embrace. As for myself, I found it to be frequently, if somewhat inconsistently, gorgeous. 4 stars

  • Michael

    Thoughtful and tender,

    meditates on the powers of storytelling. The autobiographical novel’s framed as a letter from a queer Vietnamese son, Little Dog, to his illiterate single mother, Rose. Across three expansive parts Little Dog reflects on his turbulent youth spent in Hartford, Connecticut, and hopes that the act of remembering family history through writing might heal longstanding wounds and bring parent and child closer. Using as guideposts the works of thin

    Thoughtful and tender,

    meditates on the powers of storytelling. The autobiographical novel’s framed as a letter from a queer Vietnamese son, Little Dog, to his illiterate single mother, Rose. Across three expansive parts Little Dog reflects on his turbulent youth spent in Hartford, Connecticut, and hopes that the act of remembering family history through writing might heal longstanding wounds and bring parent and child closer. Using as guideposts the works of thinkers as diverse as Elaine Scarry and Qiu Miaojin, the narrator roams among a wide array of shared memories, from his mother's harrowing acts of abuse to her infrequent but intense displays of affection. So, too, does Little Dog contemplate the nuances of his relationships with his grandmother, his absentee father, and his first love, and he reckons with how the legacy of the Vietnam War and the experience of immigration impacted his parents and grandparents. Sketching a moving portrait of a fraught bond, Vuong establishes himself as a promising novelist.

  • Emily May

    4 1/2 stars. Stunning.

    is quite a book. It is not surprising that the author is a poet, as this reads almost like a poetry collection - prose poe

    4 1/2 stars. Stunning.

    is quite a book. It is not surprising that the author is a poet, as this reads almost like a poetry collection - prose poems, each capturing a moment, a memory, a feeling, or an idea so beautifully. It doesn't follow a regular narrative structure, but is instead a series of snippets or moments. The style won't be for everyone, but for those who love the raw punches of poetry, it is a fantastic book.

    I found it difficult to believe this was fiction. There is something about Little Dog's story, a certain

    , that seems to come from a place of truth. Maybe because much of it does. The author draws on recent and historical events, stories of well-known figures, artists and tragedies to weave his fictional story with every inch of our reality.

    The book is a letter from Little Dog to his illiterate mother. He talks frankly about race, gender, sexuality, masculinity, grief and language, without allowing the book to be overwhelmed by the heavy subject matter. The last one - language - is a major theme, and the author explores the importance of language on both a micro and macro level - the choice of individual words and phrases, and the power (or lack of) bestowed upon an individual by having access to language and literacy.

    For such a tiny novel, it is huge in its scope. From the Vietnam War to Barthes to Tiger Woods to 50 Cent to Little Dog's first romance with a white boy, it's somehow both a philosophical book about humanity and language, and a deeply personal bildungsroman.

    It is impossible to categorize, but it is undeniably both brief and gorgeous.

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  • Chaima ✨ شيماء

    ,” within the narrator’s head—or it might have been his heart—the name begins tolling, very much like a bell, “

    ” And although he knows his mother is illiterate—her education capped at the age of 5 after a napalm raid destroyed her schoolhouse in Vietnam—and thus, all his hours and pain will be folded in paper and put away, the words kept tumbling out, catching fire as they went.

    is Little

    ,” within the narrator’s head—or it might have been his heart—the name begins tolling, very much like a bell, “

    ” And although he knows his mother is illiterate—her education capped at the age of 5 after a napalm raid destroyed her schoolhouse in Vietnam—and thus, all his hours and pain will be folded in paper and put away, the words kept tumbling out, catching fire as they went.

    is Little Dog—a nickname given to him by his grandmother because “

    ” But

    is a wound in the fabric of the world, and onto this letter, he is bleeding.

    In his first novel, “

    ”, Vuong assumes the voice of Little Dog, who writes to his mother like being pushed from a great height, tumbling down, snatching at anything that would prevent him from falling. The reader could just imagine her there, hovering just at the edge of remembrance: stooped with decades of working in factories and nail salons, wilting her like an unwatered flower—those places “

    .” A mother the tighter he gripped, the more she melted away—like trying to hold on to the reflection of the moon. Tenderness, resentment, delight, anger. Little Dog’s voice carried all of it when he said her name. It carried every blow, a shock of bright pain against his skin, and the gentle tales that soothed his fighting soul, and the words struggled with the contradiction. Another figure in the periphery of his vision: a grandmother, trembling with age, whose mind sometimes breaks, all the terrors pouring out, once a teenage bride, escaping an arranged marriage, “

    ” as a prostitute for American GIs.

    Neither of them whole because no one is ever whole in the aftermath of brutal war and its bloody end.

    And in another corner of Little Dog’s mind, creeping farther over it with every page, is Trevor. They met on a summer job on a tobacco barn Trevor’s grandfather owned, and there, they shared the sensation that they were absorbing each other, melting together in an blistering crucible. “

    ” But Trevor’s sweet, perishing beauty is withering into earth with every swallow of the painkillers he’s addicted to, lashed to a flood of misery and self-loathing, and theirs was a love affair as brittle and breakable as a twig under ice.

    Whether it’s his nuanced yet viscerally potent exploration of sexuality, or his simmering, mordant probing of family, first love, immigration and fate, his writing is a pleasure to read.

    His narrator, Little Dog, writes as if he is embracing his memories a final time, pressing hard as if to set them into his skin. He writes with the kind of honesty that bypasses language and finds its way into your heart, uncut. His words are sometimes as soft as a shawl that wraps against the cold, but other times, they cut to the quick like the rasp of a whetstone down a blade. Oftentimes, though, the alphabet seems to transmute itself into incoherent pitchforks, wavering as if this were a fraying dream. The result is a book that can’t be described without borrowing some of the author’s own language: “

    ” affected me like the gentle stroke of a callused palm, and I wanted to lean into it and let it stroke me forever. I couldn’t stop reading, as if the words were a rope and if I only kept it unbroken I would be held by it, unable to leave—and yet, at the same time, I often grasped for a feeling of escape, a moment to gasp for breath.

    Vuong shows Little Dog’s feelings as water shows ripples, and one can only assume that he must have drawn on some wellspring of sorrow within himself—growing up in America, queer and the son of an immigrant. His words are so perfectly evocative of heartache, and the impossible familiarity of it snagged at me.

    With Little Dog’s confessional missive before me, my own childhood’s brutalities shone through as they never had before. So much of what I felt reading Little Dog’s words to his mother—delivered on the page as soon as they felt the brush of the dark, unreal places where pain in a thousand variations and memory mingle—cannot ever crystallize into something small enough for words. They were the amalgamation of all the almost-screams that scraped my throat as I swallowed them down, and sometimes, my sheer capacity for feeling got to be so unwieldy that I staggered under it.

    Little Dog writes, each word more desperate than the last, “

    ” The answer is not as easy as paring rot from fruit. But in his bruised and aching letter, for the space of a few hundred pages, Little Dog stops winging doggedly onwards, dragging the uncertainty of the answer, and lets it all spill out of his body, onto the paper, in search for solace. “

    .”

    I do not doubt that readers of all sorts will find solace in Vuong’s words, or at the very least, something to connect with in this capaciously moving and ultimately hopeful novel.

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  • Celeste Ng

    ON EARTH WE'RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS will be described--rightly--as luminous, shattering, urgent, necessary. But the word I keep circling back to is raw: that's how powerful the emotions here are, and how you'll feel after reading it--scoured down to bone. With a poet's precision, Ocean Vuong examines whether putting words to one's experience can bridge wounds that span generations, and whether it's ever possible to be truly heard by those we love most.

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