Summary and book reviews of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong X
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jun 2019, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2021, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

Excerpt
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Inside a single-use life, there are no second chances. That's a lie but we live it. We live anyway. That's a lie but the boy opens his eyes. The room a grey-blue smear. There's music coming through the walls. Chopin, the only thing she listens to. The boy climbs out of bed and the corners of the room tilt on an axis, like a ship. But he knows this too is a trick he's making of himself. In the hallway, where the spilled lamp reveals a black mess of broken vinyl 45s, he looks for her. In her room, the covers on the bed are pulled off, the pink lace comforter piled on the floor. The night-light, only halfway in its socket, flickers and flickers. The piano drips its little notes, like rain dreaming itself whole. He makes his way to the living room. The record player by the love seat skips as it spins a record long driven to its end, the static intensifying as he approaches. But Chopin goes on, somewhere beyond reach. He follows it, head tilted for ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. When we meet the narrator of this novel, we don't know his name, only that he is writing to his mother in a language she cannot read. He says, "I am writing from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son" (10). How does the book explore the interplay of language—how he identifies himself and communicates the world—and lived, corporeal experience?
  2. What do the animals in the book—the monarch butterflies, the buffaloes, even the "little dog" after which the narrator is named—represent for the narrator? How does he try to understand their instinctual movements and behaviors?
  3. Names are precarious and shifting throughout the novel, for both the narrator and his mother. How does he feel ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Vuong first demonstrated his linguistic prowess in his lyrical poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds, and now he's extended this talent effortlessly to prose. Both an examination of the cultural scars that span generations, and an exacting distillation of the tension between the stories inside us and our inability to share them, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is an accomplished and unforgettable debut...continued

Full Review (589 words).

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(Reviewed by Rachel Hullett).

Media Reviews

New York Times
Vuong’s writing about nail salons, and the way mothers raised their children in them, is moving and rarely less than excellent...On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is, at the same time, filled with showy, affected writing, with forced catharses and swollen quasi-profundities. There are enough of these that this novel’s keel can lodge in the mud...Vuong’s novel is a mixed success, a book of highs and lows. At its best, it’s unleashed in every regard.

Washington Post
[A] lyrical work of self-discovery that’s shockingly intimate and insistently universal...At times, the tension between Little Dog’s passion and his concern seems to explode the very structure of traditional narrative, and the pages break apart into the lines of an evocative prose poem — not so much briefly gorgeous as permanently stunning.

USA Today
A riot of feeling and sensation…delirious and star-bright…Vuong is pushing the boundaries of the novel form, reshaping the definition to fit the contours of his restless poetic exploration, using language to capture consciousness and being. The text spasms with memory like synapses firing in the dark…To read this book is to fill your whole life with it, albeit not briefly. Vuong’s is poetry that lingers in the blood long after the words have run out.

Los Angeles Times
The novel is expansive and introspective, fragmented and dreamlike, a coming of age tale conveyed in images and anecdotes and explorations…Just as he fuels his prose with his poetry, Vuong takes what he needs from lived experience to animate his storytelling with visceral beauty and a strain of what feels like uncut truth…For the duration of this marvelous novel, Vuong holds our gaze and fills it with what he wills — the migration of butterflies, love in a tobacco barn, purple flowers gathered on a highway.

Publishers Weekly
[A] haunting meditation on loss, love, and the limits of human connection.

Booklist (starred review)
Casting a truly literary spell, Vuong's tale of language and origin, beauty and the power of story, is an enrapturing first novel.

Library Journal (starred review)
An epistolary ­masterpiece…Fearless, revelatory, extraordinary.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[A]n uncategorizable hybrid of what reads like memoir, bildungsroman, and book-length poem...A raw and incandescently written foray into fiction by one of our most gifted poets.

Author Blurb Tommy Orange, author of There There
This is one of the best novels I've ever read. I always want my favorite poets to write novels and here it's happened. Ocean Vuong is a master. This book a masterpiece...I dog-eared so many pages the book almost collapsed—I almost did.

Author Blurb Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere
With a poet's precision, Ocean Vuong examines whether putting words to one's experience can bridge wounds that span generations, and whether it's ever possible to be truly heard by those we love most.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Vietnamese Amerasians

Amerasians Without Borders logoWhen U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, the 1.3 million lives lost would prove to be only the beginning of the war's lasting impact on both countries, especially for many of the children born in Vietnam amid the bloodshed.

Initially coined by Pearl S. Buck and later legitimized by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the term Amerasian refers to any child born in Asia to an Asian mother and an American father. Aside from Vietnam, other countries with significant Amerasian populations are Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia and South Korea. According to the organization Amerasians Without Borders, an estimated 25,000-30,000 Vietnamese Amerasians were born between 1965 and 1975.

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