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Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong


By Simon Demetriou

When Little Dog, the narrator and protagonist of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, recalls being victimised on the school bus, he notes that the bully ‘was only nine but had already mastered the dialect of damaged American fathers.’ Not only is this one of the scenes in the novel where Ocean Vuong displays his enormous gift for evocative storytelling, but this line seems to echo throughout the book, since Vuong is concerned with parents, children, heredity, and – above all – language.

Little Dog is Vietnamese American, but never quite able to be either. This sense of simultaneous connection and disconnection colours the novel, since the book is framed as a letter written, in English, to Little Dog’s mother, Rose. But Rose cannot read English. The writing shows us that Little Dog has mastered the dialect of literary America. Meanwhile, the story he writes and the impossibility of it ever being read by its intended audience highlights that whatever new connections he has made in his life as a writer can never fully be shared with those who gave him life.

The story itself is precipitated and punctuated by tragedy. Little Dog’s grandmother, Lan, runs from her arranged marriage to a life as a sex-worker, where she meets and falls in love with an American soldier during the Vietnam war. Her daughter, Rose, is haunted by PTSD and the scars, literal and figurative, of the abusive husband who is Little Dog’s father. Little Dog grows up in Hartford, Connecticut, and his young life is littered with the drug-related deaths of many of those he knows and cares about.

Chief among these is Trevor, the first boy that Little Dog loves. The love affair between ‘the queer yellow faggot’, as Little Dog describes himself, and the blond, athletic, ostensibly all-American white boy, forms the counterpoint to the family drama. Through both the domestic and romantic sides of the novel, Vuong’s lyrical capacity to zoom in on life’s specifics, whether sexual encounters or the cleaning of a dying woman’s bed sores, is often dazzling.

And through it all, Vuong shows how life is inseparable from language. Little Dog writes that ‘the period in the sentence… makes us human… It lets us stop in order to keep going’, but comes to realise that ‘the saddest thing in the world’ is the ‘comma that’s forced to be a period’. Ultimately, Little Dog wants his book ‘to insist that our being alive is beautiful enough to be worthy of replication’. His mode of replication is writing, and it would be hard for any reader to get to the end of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous without agreeing that Little Dog, and Vuong, succeed.

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