Book Reviews

A Powerfully Heartbreaking Reality: Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

By Lana Chen

An exploration of the complicated and fraught relationship between a boy and his single mother, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong recounts his journey in navigating his own struggles through life and the understanding that comes from isolation in letters to his illiterate mother. Little Dog earned his name because “to love something, then, is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched — and alive. A name, thin as air, can also be a shield. A Little Dog shield.” This was a belief in his Vietnamese village used to ward off Evil Spirits. This strange, but significant nickname stays with him and holds a certain role in who he is or who he will become.

The letters quickly turn into a stunning record of their lives, reciting every memory, releasing untold emotions, working through the mess that was his life. Little Dog flashes from one moment to the next recounting everything that happened in his life or even beyond his life. In this novel, time does anything but go in a straight line. He recounts not only his life, past and present, but the stories that he was told about his mother’s and grandmother’s lives during the Vietnam War. He seems to be picking through each memory, connecting events to their past and their results, trying to make sense of what happened. Each snippet of his life is meaningful to what happens next, playing a role in events that he never saw coming. 

When Little Dog meets Trevor, a white boy who is the grandson of the farm’s owner that he worked at, the confusion and conflict within himself is displayed in the writing. His sexuality is put into question, but he doesn’t even notice it until it’s too late. Little Dog’s sexual orientation is a large part of this novel in a different way than most. It was never loud. There was no obvious or big moment where everything changed for him. It was subtle and quiet and just completely normal which made the significance all the more real. 

Animals played a large role in this novel as well. Monkeys ravaged, butterflies cycled through, dogs controlled by magic, buffalos running off cliffs, cows not being colorful. Each holds powerful imagery and represents a significant aspect of Little Dog’s life. “The monarchs that fly south will not make it back north. Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return; only the future revisits the past.” The imagery here is beautiful and yet despairing at the same time, knowing that a similar result will occur for him and his mother.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous also holds a focus on the Americanness of America. When Little Dog was younger, he was bullied by another boy because of his race. “[The bully] was only nine but had already mastered the dialect of damaged American fathers.” Men in America are brought up and encouraged through being violent. Compliments given to boys are “You’re killing it!” or “You’re crushing it!” All used to encourage and almost ensure violence in their future. Vuong portrays this on numerous other occasions as well. Little Dog, on the other hand, had been raised as the model minority. He has been raised to just keep his head down, blend in and that is the way to succeed in life. This resonates with many other Asian Americans, as many have been told similar things. Little Dog also feels it’s his job to become the translator for his family. This obligation as translator for the family also falls on many immigrants and there is a strong emotional attachment that comes with it. This accurate portrayal of the model minority presents a powerful impact on the Asian American community and many other immigrants.

Little Dog unearths a lot of history and reveals how he has become who he is. The influences in his life are everybody who he has ever encountered and yet the one that truly matters the most is the one who can’t respond to his letter. And yet knowing that she can’t respond is what empowers Little Dog to write this letter in the first place. What may have been a sense of isolation at some point turned into freedom “because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.” This engaging story takes the reader through the tumultuous journey that is life and reveals the heartbreak that many go through that go unnoticed in everyday life.

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