On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous—A Beautiful Challenge

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous:  A Novel

By Ocean Vuong

Published 2019

Read Dec 2019

Vuong uses, as the structure for his novel,  a long letter from the narrator to his mother when he is 28, after the narrator has graduated from college and progressed beyond his origins.  He starts with a series of incidents indicating that his mother routinely used corporal punishment.  In the first chapter he implies his mother suffered from PTSD and this was a partial driver for her hitting him.  In this first chapter he agrees with his mother that she is not a monster, but also says this is a lie.  He then  explains that a monster “is not such a terrible thing to be.”  “A monster is “to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse; both a shelter and warning at once.”  He ends the chapter with a message to his mother that he is a monster too “which is why I can’t turn away from you.  Which is why I have taken god’s loneliest creation and put you inside it. “

The narrator doesn’t tell us then why he is a monster but this reader assumed we would learn he is gay.  How that makes him a shelter and a warning at once is not so clear then nor frankly, for this reader, later.  Vuong’s language is certainly sometimes gorgeous.  “But the work [on a tobacco farm near Hartford, CT} somehow sutured a fracture inside me.  A work of unbreakable links and collaboration, each plant cut, picked, lifted, and carried from one container to another in such timely harmony that no stalk of tobacco, once taken from the soil, ever touches ground again.  A work of myriad communications, I learned to speak to the men not with my tongue, which was useless there, but with smiles, hand gestures, even silences, hesitations.”  His detailed and vivid language can only come from personal experience.  We believe what he says.  Unfortunately, this will eventually include his explicit descriptions of gay sex. 

This book is difficult to read.  Partly because of the explicit scenes of violence of mother upon son, of mother and son trying to calm schizophrenic grandma, of gay sex, and more. But also because the author invokes a style, for which this reader does not know the name, but has been encountered when reading heralded authors like Flannery O’Conner and Virginia Wolf.   It’s just plain hard to figure out what is going on at times.  

So this reader will attempt to list what might make the various characters briefly gorgeous.  The narrator’s grandmother as a young Vietnamese girl during the Vietnam War flees from her arranged marriage and is turned away from her mother’s house.  As a result, becomes pregnant by an unknown American soldier when she is earning her living on her back.  She meets a nice American soldier who is not a customer.  They fall in love, marry, and he accepts the boy as his own.  Unfortunately they become separated during the withdrawal of Americans from Vietnam.  But the couple is briefly gorgeous in their happiness and love.  The narrator’s mother, a struggling single mother, now in Hartford, CT, drags the young narrator and her mother through the streets late at night, trying s to find the right foodstuffs to make a traditional holiday meal.  Although she fails, the narrator understands the beauty of her desire.  Trevor, the narrator’s first love, is the most beautiful being the narrator can imagine during their summers of love.  Trevor doesn’t accept that his actions suggest he too is gay, but his response to their first “real fuck” (author’s language) show the narrator that he really must love him.  The narrator sees many gorgeous things and recounts them to us, in particular the beauty of the monarch butterflies and the triumph that is Tiger Woods, another many mixed-race young man who is deemed black by others and, so, his family.

This is certainly a book this reader wouldn’t choose to finish, but one this reader anticipates will become more gorgeous after the book discussion for which it is scheduled.  Thanks be to book discussions to drive us to expand our reading horizon. 

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