Ocean Vuong is a young Vietnamese-American, whose first collection of poetry was widely acclaimed, and whose first novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”, deserves the same praise for this debut novel, which is often painfully moving, poignant, and often even raw. Written as a letter to his mother, whom he calls “Ma”, who also doesn’t know how to read English, it’s both a paean to her immense courage , to her amazing strength and her survival skills. His mother, his grandmother Lan (aka “Rose”), and the young Vuong himself, live in Hartford, Connecticut, in a tiny, often freezing apartment; “Ma” makes a living doing nails at a nail salon, a common and unpleasant and physically difficult job far too common amongst Asian immigrants in America. Vuong, typically, is bullied by white kids when he first enters school, because he is non-white. These three generations sleep together, often on the floor, of their tiny apartment. Things so many Americans take for granted are very special treats in this family, such as eating a pizza for dinner.
Numerous flashbacks occur throughout this amazingly poetic novel; Vuong’s prose is so nearly like poetry that his use of language alone will amaze any reader. The novel is also filled with aphorisms, with plays on language; Vuong often wonders whether language is ever able to explain the pain of loss, of fear and anxiety, and ultimately of both love and beauty. Numerous meditations on the nature of beauty, and its transcendent importance as one of life’s primary aims and goals, run throughout the novel. And the horrors of the war in Vietnam are both alluded to and described in flashbacks, both by the mother and the grandmother, so that Vuong has some sense of his home country and parts of his birth identity.
Vuong’s narrator takes a job in a tobacco field (yes, in Connecticut), where he meets the very white, very American Trevor, the grandson of the owner of these fields. All of the laborers but this white boy are immigrant labor, whether legal or not, most from South of the American border. But the relationship between Trevor and our narrator rather quickly veers into a sexual one; the descriptions of the intensity of this relationship takes up much of the novel. It seems as if the narrator is literally pulling Trevor’s American maleness into his body by having sexual encounters with him; Vuong compares this sexual relationship to that of ancient Greek men, where sex between men was both literal and symbolic/metaphoric. So Vuong, then, becomes a double outsider, too; he’s both Vietnamese and gay (when he tells his mother that he prefers boys to girls, she warns him “not to wear a dress” because standing out is the worst thing he can do as a Vietnamese in America). The novel flips back and forth; sometimes the narrator is in his early teens, sometimes he’s off to college, and, eventually, he returns as a college graduate, while Trevor, of course, never leaves the small town (opiate deaths are rampant here, as well).
Throughout the novel, we learn more and more about the backgrounds of mother and grandmother, and when, late in the novel, after the grandmother’s death surrounded by both her two daughters and her grandson, the narrator and his mother return to Vietnam for the grandmother’s funeral. Yuong stumbles, in the middle of the night, into a neighborhood funeral, where drag queens are mourning for a recently dead person; Vuong discovers the ancient role that these queens have played in Vietnamese mourning for centuries: Vuong’s observations on gender and sexuality in this novel are very powerful, and his double outsider status in America brilliantly rendered.
The dialectic between death and grief and loss, on the one hand, and sex and life and beauty , on the other hand, are the main underlying metanarratives of this astonishingly moving and gorgeously written first novel by an amazing new talent in American literature. It’s unlike any novel I’ve read recently, and I urge readers to try this immensely moving work of prose poetry.