On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
A NoveleBook - 2019
Longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal in Fiction, the 2019 Aspen Words Literacy Prize, and the PEN/Hemingway Debut Novel Award
Shortlisted for the 2019 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Winner of the 2019 New England Book Award for Fiction!
Named one of the most anticipated books of 2019 by Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Oprah.com, Huffington Post, The A.V. Club, Nylon, The Week, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Guardian, Publishers Weekly, and more.
“A lyrical work of self-discovery that’s shockingly intimate and insistently universal…Not so much briefly gorgeous as permanently stunning.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post
Poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of storytelling
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.
With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.
Named a Best Book of the Year by:
GQ, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Library Journal, TIME, Esquire, The Washington Post, Apple, Good Housekeeping, The New Yorker, The New York Public Library, Elle.com, The Guardian, The A.V. Club, NPR, Lithub, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue.com, The San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal Magazine and more!
From the critics
SummaryAdd a Summary
Autobiographical novels can be self-indulgent, dishy, or fraught. With such familiar source material, authors can wind up in the weeds, too close to the story to make a coherent narrative of it. But when these novels work, they can be gorgeous feats, giving readers searing glimpses into lives they’ve never imagined, or showing someone who needs it a slice of their own life in print. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is absolutely the latter.
With the novel framed as a letter to his mother, Vuong’s character, Little Dog, follows a trajectory that closely matches his own life growing up in Hartford, Connecticut. He’s child of a Vietnamese mother – whose own story is heartbreaking – and a father who barely exists in the narrative beyond a sense of distant terror, now absent. They arrive in Hartford during Little Dog’s early years; his mother works in a nail salon, and tries to make the best life she can for them, plus her mother Lan. It’s an unrequited narrative, in that Vuong’s narrator is certain his mother is unable to span the emotional and cultural distance required to read the book he wrote her, even as he writes it.
Vuong does much more than recount the challenges of coming to America as a young child, in a family scarred by the traumas of war. He uses achingly beautiful language to try to span the distance he feels between his mother, aunt, and grandmother, still so rooted in their Vietnamese memories and culture, and his own life as a gay man fluent in American and Vietnamese culture, but not completely at home in either.
Vuong’s prose shifts between imagining his mother’s and grandmother’s lives in Vietnam, and parsing his own life, from his childhood, through to his first romance with an all-American, foot-ball loving boy he meets picking tobacco one summer in high school, and finally into his early adult years. The novel is permeated by a sense of unbelonging: his own, his family’s, but also that of the young people he bonds with in Hartford and New York City who feel left behind and broken, and begin to fall to the opioid epidemic.
Vuong’s prose folds outward prismically, his honed poet’s voice lending layers of understanding to situations too often given superficial treatment in the news or social media. For readers who love to scan a text for different readings, this book is weighty and melancholic, stunning in how it unravels to tease more meanings. While anyone who gets most of their enjoyment from a tight plot may find themselves frustrated, those who engage with rich language and complex characters may find their book of the year.
A letter from a young man to his illiterate mother, 'On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous' follows the narrator, Little Dog, as he comes of age on the East Coast with his Vietnamese refugee mother and grandmother. The novel chronicles Little Dog's experiences as he explores his identity, as well as the narratives of his mother and grandparents in their native Vietnam.
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QuotesAdd a Quote
All freedom is relative—you know too well—and sometimes it’s no freedom at all, but simply the cage widening far away from you, the bars abstracted with distance but still there, as when they “free” wild animals into nature preserves only to contain them yet again by larger borders. But I took it anyway, that widening. Because sometimes not seeing the bars is enough.
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