Vuong’s novel exemplifies the power in overcoming adversity, charting paths and being seen even when instinct says to hide in order to survive.
A stark, thoughtful melding of memoir, reflection and genealogical and world history narrated in incisive, often lyrical prose results in a novel of great pain and demonstrative love. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous begins as Little Dog writes to his mother, Hong, a letter tracing their family story. It starts with his grandmother, Lan, fleeing an arranged marriage and providing for a young Hong in the midst of the Vietnam War, and then Hong scraping by in the United States with Lan and Little Dog. The story then finds Little Dog carrying their collective past and trying to find his voice when American society derides them for being different. This epistolary exercise revolves around Little Dog making sense of their lives and his feelings, all while coming of age as a young, gay, brown immigrant mired in class and cultural struggle.
The timeline ping-pongs back and forth, intertwining the matriarchs’ lives with Little Dog’s and vice versa. On Earth depicts family trauma in scenes where the women, seized in PTSD flashbacks, duck to the floor waiting for imaginary mortars to cease, or seek refuge in the closet while playing Chopin records after trashing the kitchen. The violence doesn’t end with them either. Hong often hits Little Dog, until at 13, he looks at her “hard, the way I had learned, by then, to look into the eyes of my bullies” and demands she stop.
However, the book also brims with compassion. Though dementia makes Lan confuse fact and fiction, she never stops telling Little Dog stories, perhaps birthing his love for writing. As they walk to church one day, Hong distracts her son from bloodied streets by describing for him imaginary trees teeming with colored birds. Encouraged by his mother’s pleas, Little Dog uses his “bellyful of English” to stand up to his oppressors and, as his family’s interpreter, wears his second language “like a mask” for the world to see their faces through his. Little Dog’s romance with Trevor, a white teenager with his own demons, is similarly wrought with hurt and sentiment. Together, they navigate individuality and masculinity amid substance use, absent or inattentive fathers and Trevor’s struggle with his sexuality.
Each passage is written with emotionality and portraitive detail indicative of a millennial literary phenom like Ocean Vuong, who translates his poetic prowess effortlessly into his fiction debut. The recurring image of monarch butterflies flitting away in explosions of the wild symbolize Little Dog’s family, monarchs of their own existence persevering through the worst. While Vuong’s book resonates with the American climate, it particularly shines in its exploration of the Asian immigrant experience. The reader aches as a butcher mocks Hong and Lan for mooing and pantomiming horns and wiggly backsides while trying to request oxtail, as Little Dog cowers, not knowing the English term. Through Hong, Vuong reveals that behind the Asian nail salon employee stereotype is a perpetuating cycle of manual labor, economic stagnation and occupation of a “place where dreams become the calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones…aching, toxic, and underpaid.”
Both a heart-wrenching and triumphant read, Vuong’s novel exemplifies the power in overcoming adversity, charting paths and being seen even when instinct says to hide in order to survive. Whether by assuming a new name, traveling overseas or composing one’s own story, these characters claim their personal and shared lives as their own “gorgeous” thing—fruits not born from violence but instead evidence that it “passed through” and “failed to spoil.” Little Dog’s family derives not shame but pride and strength from their past. It’s a lesson for readers in understanding their choice to begin anew and run forward, all in a narrative unflinching when faced with the world’s ugliness and beauty.