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.