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Review: Ocean Vuong's debut novel will take you to the edge of love

In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a Vietnamese-American writes letters to his illiterate mother who escaped the war in her country—in the process realizing there simply are things one cannot completely run away from 
Jam Pascual | Jul 27 2019

He speaks through the persona of Little Dog, a Vietnamese-American writing in English to an illiterate mother. The book is an epistolary novel, filled with experiences its addressee cannot and will never read—from post-traumatic reflections of domestic abuse perpetrated by the mother herself, to moments of queer coming-of-age, felt under the cover of shadows. Interspersed with these confessions are other images and scenarios of futility: how flocks of monarch butterflies migrate from southern Canada and the United States to Central Mexico to escape the brutality of winter, though such thin wings can only take you so far; how on a nature channel, wild buffalo fling themselves off the edge of a cliff, hurtling to death as a herd for seemingly no reason.

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Even our hero's name, Little Dog, is a fragile promise. It is tradition in Ho Chi Minh, the village of his grandmother, to name the smallest child after something weak or contemptible, to ward off evil spirits seeking appetizing prey. Little Dog was raised by a mother and grandmother who both escaped the Vietnam War and sought refuge in the predominantly white town of Hartford, Conneticut. In the thorns of the American condition. In spite of his name, only as dependable as a prayer, Little Dog would come to learn that you can take a body out of a war, but you can't take the war out of the body.

These are the interrogations that On Earth presents. In the face of violence, what good are such invocations? How does the uncrossable divide between Little Dog and his mother—like butterflies migrating, like crossing the ocean to flee a war—make certain articulations possible?

There is a kind of richness that comes with a project designed to short-circuit. It already presumes that there is only so much language can do, that there is a hard, cold limit to the ways we can articulate grief. The writer is called to both be humble and rise to the occasion, and in On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong is a monarch butterfly muscling through a hurricane.

Vuong's deftness as a writer is partly explained by the flexibility of the novel's form. Though epistolary, the letters are never quite straight—Little Dog weaves through his confessions by employing little narrative detours, highlighting the non-white lives of his predominantly Caucasian hometown, and blurring the line at undefined places between fiction and autobiography. I sympathize with the voyeuristic thrill—that is to say, it feels wrong—of asking, did this or that actually happen? But that’s not important. One could go the whole nine yards about what possible motivations lie in choosing between telling one's story as fabrication or memoir, or the nuanced distinctions between truth and fact. But as Vuong stated in his interview with Seth Meyers,"I wanted to start with truth, and end with art. That was always my goal."

And the truth is, Vuong’s subject position as a writer is characterized by an inheritance of grief. In both his novel and the poetry collection that cemented his place in American letters, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Vuong wrestles with the notion that he was born of a war, that he wouldn’t have been born if not for a war, that the American conquest machine dyes the nature of the existence of so many refugees. A history of pain, living in one’s bones. How does one heal when one enters this world through hurt? "Sometimes, when I'm careless, I believe the wound is also the place where the skin reencounters itself, asking of each end, where have you been?" Vuong writes. “Where have we been, Ma?”

It is difficult to explain how Vuong, through Little Dog, discovers beauty in agony. But we do know that it doesn’t involve falling on tired platitudes like looking for silver linings in dark skies, but rather, coming face to face with dark skies from the altitude of language. It involves grappling with the past to honor the present. It involves butterflies, and buffalo, and a blonde white boy in a tobacco plantation “with a scar like a comma on his neck, syntax of what next what next what next,” and a mother who tries her damndest to love, and a son who does the same.

“They say nothing lasts forever but they’re just scared it will last longer than they can love it,” Vuong writes, strained wingbeat in a hurricane. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, in crossing its great distances, takes us to the very edge of love. It is a book made of miles. And with it, Ocean Vuong lays bare a cartography of the futilities that make us alive.