On 01/01/2020 I started reading a book. I finished that book on 16/02/2020. Even for me, that’s a bloody long time. Yes, I managed to read a fair few books in between those two dates but it was a struggle. I just couldn’t face picking up a book in January. Thankfully, February has proved slightly better. Not much but slightly. Having finally opened the covers of a physical novel has encouraged me and I think I’ll be able to take a bit of a break with the audiobooks. Not that I have a problem with them, something that my post last week can verify, but I do have a problem with buying them. In order to justify my spending habits, I need to start getting a few more finished. Unfortunately, listening to books isn’t going to get that done. Still, we’re only 47 days into the year and I’ve finally crossed one off the old TBR list. It’s some kind of progress. Not good but something.
Ocean Vuong has talked about his personal history in his 2017 poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. His grandfather was a US soldier posted to Vietnam. He fell in love with a girl and the pair married. They had 3 daughters together but, when his grandfather was visiting the US, the fall of Saigon tore the family apart. His grandmother put her daughters into different orphanages because of her feat they would be taken from her. Vuong’s mother worked in a salon in Saigon and had her son when she was 18. Under the new communist regime, she was banned from working because she was mixed race. Eventually, the family were evacuated to the Philippines before they started their new life in the US.
A common theme in Vuong’s work is the idea that his family were born out of war. Without the conflict neither he nor his mother would exist. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is Vuong’s first novel and it draws on elements of his life. Although, the novel actually tells the story of Little Dog, the son of Vietnamese parents living in the US. The novel is written in the form of a letter from Little Dog to his mother. The only problem is, as the letter is written in English, his mother will never be able to read it. The letter’s fragmented narrative takes us through the life of Little Dog, his mother, and his grandmother. It takes us from Vietnam, where Little Dog was born to his life growing up in Hartford, Connecticut. His story is one of an outsider and is not a particularly happy one.
The novel digs deeps into Little Dog’s family life. His mother was the victim of a violent husband but exhibits abusive behaviour towards her son. His grandmother has problems with her mental health but is kind to her grandson in her more lucid moments.
As well as his family, we learn of Little Dog’s first love affair. It is with a boy named Trevor who, on first examination, wouldn’t be the obvious choice as he is the stereotype of White American masculinity. The pair meet when Little Dog starts working on a tobacco farm owned by Trevor’s grandfather. Trevor has a difficult life with an alcoholic father, a drug addiction, a love of guns, and a lack of respect for the rest of society. They form an instant connection which quickly turns into an awkward sexual one. There is a genuine passion and love between them but Trevor is adamant that he’s not gay. It’s a love affair that is doomed from the start but has a huge impact on the course of Little Dog’s life.
There are a lot of awful and sad moments in the novel but it all counts towards something wonderful. Little Dog doesn’t see any of these moments as regrets because, as the title tells us, there exists a brief window in a human lifespan where real happiness and beauty exists. That beauty may not always be simple or conventional but it exists. It’s not something that can keep going forever but it will always be there. Little Dog remembers his childhood because he was authentically living his life with Trevor. There is something beautiful and unique to be found outside society. He was experiencing things and finding himself. There is beauty to be found in the worst circumstances, like the forming of his family during a conflict.
The poet and lyrical nature of the prose succeeds in highlighting brief windows of real beauty. Vuong’s use of language really brings the characters and the settings to life. We get a real sense of the nail bar where Little Dog’s mother, Rose, works because of the way he describes its unique smell. We are side-by-side with the workers in the tobacco fields as they work hard to reach their quota. The writer delights in describing the specifics and has a great grasp of sensory details. There is a real sense that the novel is capturing real moments and suspending them in time. He is frank and precise with his use of words and it can be incredibly beautiful and moving. However, there are moments when the artistry gets a little too much. The letter that frames the novel is being written to a woman who will never read it. Therefore, it is not being written with a reader in mind. Sometimes the lyrical nature of the language feels a little self-indulgent. Little Dog, and therefore Vuong, can sometimes get a little carried away when explaining the consequences of his story or the wider meaning it holds for society. It interrupts the flow at times and takes your attention away from the underlying message.
That’s not to say that it isn’t good or worthwhile. This is a really well-written book and has a lot to say about society, race, drug addiction, and youth. It is a book full of passion and love and it really engages. Yes, it might get a little too flowery at times but Vuong’s nature as a poet would obviously have an impact here.
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