Beginning Again: Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

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To say On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, is only a novel would diminish its essence and ambition. For it is also an epistle—the book takes the form of a letter written by the narrator Little Dog to his mother, Rose, who cannot read English—as well as epic poem, romance, elegy, family history, theory, and critical essay. In addition to its genre-spanning nature, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous employs the Japanese narrative form kishōtenketsu, which refuses conflict as a means to drive the narrative forward, thus challenging Western, and especially American, ideals of what a novel can be.

Rather than the typical plot arc that ends with a climax and resolution, kishōtenketsu consists of an introduction, development, twist, and conclusion. This form opts to tell through expansion and surprise rather than build-up and release. Without closure and clear resolution, the novel emerges as a closer reflection of life.

One could say On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous consists of a series of related vignettes. Narrative development occurs as Little Dog remembers different scenes from his childhood and retells stories passed down to him by family members. Of memory, Little Dog writes: “Ma. You once told me that memory is a choice. But if you were god, you’d know it’s a flood.” It is in a flood that these memories rush to the reader as well, who must learn to swim and float with the water rather than fight it. These memories take the readers through the home, where Little Dog massages Rose after her long shifts at work; through the tobacco fields, where he works and eventually meets Trevor; the side of the highway, where Little Dog’s grandmother Lan encourages him to climb a fence to pick flowers; and the dark river, where Trevor and Little Dog wash off after sex.

Taking place mostly in Hartford, Connecticut in the early aughts with flashbacks to Vietnam during the war, this work knows full well that nothing can exist without history or a past, knows full well that the way something is assembled is not “alien from the impulse that created it.” Steeped in news and cultural references, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous makes time travel possible. In one part, it’s the summer of 2003:

Bush had already declared war on Iraq, citing weapons of mass destruction that never materialized, when the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love?” played on every radio station… It was the summer Tiger Woods would go on to receive the PGA Play of the Year for the fifth time in a row… it was two years before Facebook and four before the first iPhone, Steve Jobs was still alive, and your nightmares had just started getting worse.

Descriptions like these saturate the text with vivid details that steady and ground. At the same time, these passages slip away; Little Dog never writes about one place for too long. He reflects, “Some people say history moves in a spiral, not the line we have come to expect. We travel through time in a circular trajectory, our distance increasing from an epicenter only to return again, one circle removed.” The past returns as vignettes that must be told—each story becomes a trigger for another. For Little Dog, putting language to memory becomes a way to survive.

Let me begin again.

I am thinking of the word “beginning”—beginning as reopening, as a start, as an origin. Beginning, from Old English beginnan meaning “to attempt, undertake”; the word a compound of be and West Germanic ginnan, or “to open, open up.” Beginning as failing, as trying, as opening, as possibility and surprise. Beginning as a way out.

Throughout the novel, Little Dog employs the phrase “Let me begin again” as a way to restart the letter and therefore the novel itself. Remembering and writing become avenues that Little Dog uses to resist death and insist on life. This method offers a second chance, a way to travel back and rerecord, remake meaning, re-understand, and relive. The instinct to begin multiple times allows the writing to explode; it builds upon and apart from itself, always opening and blooming, even as it ends.

Let me begin again.

Tension builds from an inundation of memory. Vuong relieves this tension with distances—silences, gaps, voids, and erasures—which hold some of the novel’s most intimate moments. One way this manifests is through language and translation. Little Dog writes, “Do you remember the morning… when we found the letters FAG4LIFE scrawled in red spray paint across our front door?” When Rose asked what it meant, Little Dog replied that it meant “Merry Christmas” and explained, “See? That’s why it’s red. For luck.” In this instance, Little Dog protects his mother from the truth while also changing language to insist on a different truth and imagine a different reality.

Emphasizing the flexibility of language and meaning, Vuong shows just how it can be used to walk towards and within imagination. Sentences become places of regeneration: “It’s no accident, Ma, that the comma resembles a fetus—that curve of continuation.” They become tools to freedom: “I wasn’t trying to make a sentence—I was trying to break free.” Most of all, they are places that teach about survival: “Yes, the period in the sentence—it’s what makes us human, Ma, I swear. It lets us stop in order to keep going.”

The room of the sentence is the place where Little Dog reuses, re-sees, reinterprets, and reclaims language, and, as a result, memory. At the same time, the sentence is what gets him farther from Rose, who cannot read these truths. “I’m breaking us apart so that I might carry us somewhere else,” Little Dog reflects. There is futility to Little Dog’s letter, yet in this futility, we see hope and healing. We see the usefulness of failure and even the opportunity and openings it can provide. Through failure, truth cracks open and Little Dog’s life experiences become legible.

Perhaps in this work, expansion happens through the process of making visible the distance and the gaps. I keep turning back to a moment when Little Dog writes, “Because the sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.” In an interview with Bill Radke on Seattle Public Radio, Vuong wonders, “What is the cost of trying to liberate oneself?” In turn, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous urges us to reflect: Can the act of liberating oneself liberate others? And how might this liberation begin?

Let me begin again.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous shifts the conversation around immigration, the opioid crisis, queerness, and violence through its attention and sensitivity to language, as well as its collaborative nature. This work is a collective song—of Little Dog, of Rose, of Trevor, of Lan, of Little Dog’s father, of Vietnam, war, addiction, joy, survival, America. It is the song of what is left, alive, and beautiful.

As Little Dog and Trevor belt out the lyrics to 50 Cent’s “Many Men (Wish Death),” he writes, “They say a song can be a bridge, Ma. But I say it’s also the ground we stand on. And maybe we sing to keep ourselves from falling. Maybe we sing to keep ourselves.” Passing down songs is important to this novel and to Vuong, who posted on Instagram:

throughout this tour, when the spirit moves me, i’ve been singing this song to close out the night. it’s an Appalachian hymn called “bright morning stars.” it was taught to me throughout my youth at wakes and funerals of friends lost to the opioid crisis (many of whom were the children of migrants from Appalachia who moved east after the mines closed). i’m no singer so this is in the spirit of carrying songs and poems across borders—geographic, cultural, linguistic and otherwise—a practice instilled in me by the Vietnamese women who raised me.

Similarly, Little Dog sings the song of the women who raised him—Lan and Rose. Though the prose is addressed to and revolves around Rose, in many ways her presence remains ghostlike. The audience learns about her primarily through her body and the work she does—her hands, her back, her aches. It is her work that helps the family survive. It is Little Dog’s work of putting language to history and memory that, in turn, keeps the family surviving. Work is what Rose passes down to Little Dog—the song he is able to sing because she carried him and carries the story.

Let me begin again.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a love story.

Vuong writes with recognition that narratives of poverty, toxic masculinity, and trauma pervade and persevere. Their passing-down enter the present through spirals; they live within love as cycles of violence and destruction. For example, Little Dog explores the effects of violence on relationships by using history to trace back and understand the circumstances that shaped the people he loves. He begins to see that the violence Rose inflicts on him mirrors the bullying she faced being half-white (the daughter of Lan and an American soldier) in Vietnam.

These themes also play out through the ways violence unfolds in Trevor and Little Dog’s relationship. “I had thought sex was to breach new ground, despite terror, that as long as the world did not see us, its rules did not apply,” Little Dog reflects. “But I was wrong. The rules, they were already inside us.” As Trevor struggles to reconcile societal expectations of masculinity with his sexuality, these rules and expectations manifest as shame, rage, and addiction, holding him in the past.

Still, Little Dog insists on seeing the soft parts of Trevor: “How could such a hard-stitched boy possess something so sweet, delicate, made entirely of edges, of endings? Between my lips, it was a bud sprouted from inside him, possible. This part is the good part of Trevor… Not the squirrel shooter. Not the one who axed up what was left of a shot-up park bench to splinters.” Holding onto this tenderness, Little Dog recognizes the pull of the past, yet strives to see more. He finds hope and kindness within complexity, and keeps them in the light for readers to hold.

Let me begin again.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous grieves. It is about the carrying of grief, the making-sense of it, the joy found from and within it. It’s about inheritance and spirals. It let us wonder, with hope, How many times can we begin again?

Perhaps the answer lies within the question. Many times. As many times as we can give ourselves. To read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is to experience a beginning again and again. It is to see the world as an open field, full of possibility. The risks Vuong takes in this work are only risks because they insist on hope, and joy, and show a path towards healing through language and imagination. This book teaches us how and where we might begin.

Jennifer Huang is a Taiwanese-American writer from Rockville, Maryland. Her poems have appeared in Narrative Magazine, The Journal, wildness, and elsewhere; and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She received an MFA in Poetry from the University of Michigan. Currently, she lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where she is working on a novel. More from this author →