Book by Ocean Vuong. $26; Penguin Press; 256 pages
One quote on author Ocean Vuong's website refers to him as "the Walt Whitman of Vietnamese-American literature." Vuong's poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, was a New York Times Top 10 book of 2016, the recipient of two literary awards and nominated for several others. Born in Saigon and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, now an assistant professor in University of Massachusetts-Amherst's MFA program, he's both an American success story and a wry observer of immigrant trauma that can manifest in destruction.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is Vuong's debut novel, named one of the most anticipated novels of 2019 by O, The Oprah Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times and many more. Starred reviews abounded and bestselling authors Celeste Ng and Tommy Orange raved. Vuong toured the country in June after the novel's release.
Sadly, the book itself is much ado about nothing. Though beautifully written in Vuong's signature poetic voice, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a fast read with a forgettable narrative. Inspired by Vuong's own experiences and written in a world of his own making, most of the novel's pivotal events ( parental abuse, first love, shared trauma ) are written in ways everyone has read before.
The book is structured as a long letter from the narrator Little Dog to his mother, who cannot read due to violence invading her Vietnamese home as a school-age child. Both Little Dog's mother and grandmother hold disturbing memories inside: offspring who didn't survive, sex work as the only means of putting food on the table, deceiving loved ones to make a better life for their families. In the case of Little Dog's mother, the bad thoughts are made plain in beatings and tough love that feels like just the opposite. As Little Dog comes of age in hardscrabble Hartford, he realizes that he's different from his peers and embarks on a relationship with another closeted teenager whose home life is even more dire.
On Earth shines brightest when Vuong returns to his poetic roots. In an elegy to a friend who passed away too young, he uses free verse rather than prose and the results are a stunning tribute that's highly relatable to anyone experiencing grief. Vuong uses poetry a few other times in the novel, and it's there his voice feels most authentic.
The rest of the book is not nearly as strong. Though the plot points are compelling, Vuong's depiction of them often descends into cliché ( his first lover lives in a trailer with his abusive drug addict father, typical of much fiction featuring gay teens in small towns ). Perhaps Vuong is uncomfortable with prose and therefore describes the most unique parts of Little Dog's life in the ways every reader will expect.
Poetry and prose are each their own beast, and it's a rare writer who can do both well. Vuong may have fared better by formatting On Earth as a novel of poems and letting his unique perspective come through. As it is, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is just as the title says: there's beauty to be found in Vuong's debut novel, but it's fleeting.
For more about the author, visit oceanvuong.com .