On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Little Dog is twenty-eight, a Vietnamese American who suddenly decides to write to his mother after rereading Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary. The novel that follows unravels his life in fits and starts, moments and memories awakening from each other into a work unafraid of shifting forms, exploring what it is to live as an immigrant in small town America. 

But Little Dog isn’t just an immigrant, isn’t just an outsider whose family came to America to escape the burnt remnants of their life in Vietnam, whose mother and grandmother never speak clear English and work in nail bars until their lungs give out with the fumes. Little Dog is also gay and the novel, the work he writes to his mother, is his way of coming out to her, even though he knows she can’t read. 

It is also a lament for his first love, Trevor, whom he met tobacco picking. Trevor whose red-neck alcoholic father slumps in the lazy boy watching bad television and shouting racist remarks. Trevor, whose use of pain medication for a broken limb, turns to heroine for his opium leading to an untimely death through overdose. The briefly gorgeous are also those working class white Americans, looking out at the world from their trailers.

The sense of lament is felt throughout, a sentimental feeling that yearns for an impossible homecoming. His mother suffers from PTSD. His grandmother is losing her sanity along with her white hairs that she insists Little Dog pick out while she tells him stories. This is a book about the things that cannot ever be made completely whole, cannot be neatly tied up, but which are, in their own ways briefly, transcendentally, beautiful. 

It would be hard not to be entranced by this sharp and concise book that sparkles with poetic description and insight. Everyone is raving about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and rightly so.

I’ll be reviewing some of The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski next. Nothing like a catholic reading list!

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