Poet Ocean Vuong’s highly anticipated debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, takes the form of a letter from a young writer to his illiterate mother. The writer, who goes by the nickname Little Dog and whose life bears a strong resemblance to Vuong’s own, is the first of his family to go to college. The letter is an attempt to share his fragile sense of self with his mother.
Little Dog’s grandmother survived the Vietnam War as a sex worker, and his mother was fathered by an American soldier. After immigrating to the United States and settling in a working-class Connecticut neighborhood, Little Dog became a victim of his mother’s abuse and a witness to his grandmother’s untreated schizophrenia. Without siblings or a father, Little Dog was isolated and lonely, hyperaware of his small size, his lack of English and his origins.
Vuong’s poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds was one of the most celebrated books of 2016. In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, his prose is richly poetic, and his references draw from a wide range of sources, from Roland Barthes to 50 Cent. The novel seems like part memoir, part epic poem, although at times the lyricism feels overly mannered and the associations strained.
The novel finds its heart when Little Dog invites his mother to acknowledge a part of his life he’s never fully shared with her. Little Dog and Trevor met as teenagers when they worked on a tobacco farm, and their attraction was immediate. The depiction of the boys’ affair is graphic yet tender, and the blunt portrayal of Trevor’s opioid addiction alludes to the grim consequences of poverty and violence in their community.
Disarmingly frank, raw in subject matter but polished in style and language, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous reveals the strengths and limitations of human connection and the importance of speaking your truth.