"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."--
So why didn't I like this book more? 1) Graphic scenes of abuse, both of people and animals. Near the beginning, there's a horrific scene of Vietnamese men sitting around a table with a hole cut in the center, out of which rises a monkey's head; they proceed to spoon out his brains and eat them, the monkey screaming as long as he is able. That just about did me in, but I pushed on . . . 2) Very graphic scenes of gay sex. I'm just not big on graphic sex scenes of any kind--straight, gay, with animals, whatever. 3) Heavy focus on drug abuse and the behavior of addicts when high. I know it's a problem in our society, and I hope something can be done about it, but I just don't want to read the depressing down and dirty about drug addiction. I would rather read about people trying to do something positive with their lives rather than about people destroying themselves. Obviously, for whatever reason, other people don't mind reading about these things, since the book has gotten such high ratings. So if you are still interested in it despite my own misgivings, be my guest. You might love and/or admire the book. I will say that Vuong's poetic background has given him mastery over the senses--you will vividly see, hear, smell, taste, and touch whatever he is describing--and his skill at creating atmosphere will work on your emotions as well.
I realize that I'm not writing anything about the "plot" here. It's not that kind of novel. There is a storyline and there is forward progress, but this is less story than it is journey.
A few quotes:
“Isn’t that the saddest thing in the world, Ma? A common forced to be a period?”
“What if my sadness is actually my most brutal teacher?”
“We can survive our lives, but not our skin.”
“It was beauty, I learned, that we risked ourselves for.”
“Fathers were phantoms, dipping in and out of their children’s lives.”
It reads more like an intimate memoir than a novel, but one in which the memories recounted of and by his mother/grandmother is uncertain, or at least not fully trustworthy. It is interspersed with stories of others with connection to Vietnam, notably Earl Woods (father of Tiger). These read as if they could be true.
Little Dog, the protagonist, is Vietnamese. The brutality of war generally, Vietnam specifically, is part of Little Dog's past and inescapable in the two most important formative relationships in his life - his grandmother and his mother. Much of the story involves Little Dog feeling like he doesn't really belong anywhere and sorting where he fits:
he's neither fully Vietnamese, nor fully American
his mother is abusive to him, yet he lives with and cares for her because it's expected of him
he's tender and gay, but works a physically rough, traditionally masculine job
he has freedom and liberty his mother/grandmother never had, but becomes a prisoner of drug use and suffers casualties of that
As others have said, there is a very grotesque depiction of animal torture, and several graphic depictions of gay sex, and drug use.
The writer is very talented with words. This book is fraught with emotion and feels intimate and personal in a way that most novels fail to come close to. I'm not sorry that I read it, but it's not one I would recommend on its own. For the right reader, this book could be very meaningful...I'm just not sure who that person is.
Out of anything I've ever read and offered up an opinion, I understood where those books fit in my literary world. Not this one. Some sentences were captivating enough to be read more than once. Some sentences made no sense. I know. We could call this poetic license. And this brilliant writer exercising creativity, taking and bending his work into a novel, truly, such an effort ought to leave a reader breathless and in awe. Instead, I was sort of puzzled. Not confused. Puzzled.
As I read along - and believe me, there were some scenes in this book that blew my mind - and I did LOVE them, but what failed (for me) was this whole format of a letter to his mother, the letter which we all know she may never read. I thought of him, "Little Dog," sitting on his couch, looking at a photograph book - and the pictures - like in many photograph books, are out of sequence. And with each one he comes to, it was as if he began the narration about that particular scene, what was happening, how he felt, what it meant to him, and so forth.
And the ending? Well, it was so free form, so stream of consciousness that I skimmed it.
I didn't hate the book, but I didn't love the book. It sort of makes me sad because I wanted to love it, you know?
Vuong tells his story in the form of a letter written to his mother, a letter he doubts she will ever read since at the end of the day after working at the nail salon for too many hours, she will be too tired,(not to mention she is illiterate).As readers we hear about his grandmother Lan, how she survived the last days of Saigon by using her beauty, how a Virginian jazz lover turned GI married her and relocated her to America.( "Paul played music to get away—and when his old man tore up his application for music school, Paul got even further, all the way to the enlistment office, and found himself, at nineteen, in South East Asia".)
This is his family: Lan, her daughter Rose, and this boy named Little Dog,( so that the evil spirits might look past him in their quest to do harm). "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." The customs of Vietnam infiltrate this boy's life as he grows up in Hartford, Connecticut, bullied by his peers and confused over his attraction to another boy named Trevor. The novel dedicates time to each of their stories, mostly in remembrances being written in the letter. Vuong's haunting images of GIs eating monkey brains, and buffaloes plunging blindly off cliffs just add to the details of this compelling story of a family and one boy's struggle with a doomed relationship. His narratives about trailer park life in a world where OxyContin has taken over any kind of American Dream are vivid, upsetting, but important to understand. The novel is also about language. For Little Dog, he is his family's translator, giving him power in the family, but not enough to escape the abusiveness of mother, who suffers from mental illness. "The time with the kitchen knife—the one you picked up, then put down, shaking, saying quietly, “Get out. Get out.” And I ran out the door, down the black summer streets. I ran until I forgot I was ten, until my heartbeat was all I could hear of myself."
Though I will admit to some passages of uncomfortable detail regarding Little Dog's and Trevor's relationship, this is an important work by a voice worth hearing.
I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence—I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.
Despite being your mother, she is nothing like you; her skin three shades darker, the color of dirt after a rainstorm, spread over a skeletal face whose eyes shone like chipped glass.
How, as a young woman living in a wartime city for the first time with no family, it was her body, her purple dress, that kept her alive.
“Drink,” you said, your lips pouted with pride. “This is American milk so you’re gonna grow a lot. No doubt about it.” I drank so much of that cold milk it grew tasteless on my numbed tongue.
As a girl, you watched, from a banana grove, your schoolhouse collapse after an American napalm raid. At five, you never stepped into a classroom again. Our mother tongue, then, is no mother at all—but an orphan. Our Vietnamese a time capsule, a mark of where your education ended, ashed. Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.
The shots are held by arms that belong to men who will soon cut open the macaque’s skull with a scalpel, open it like a lid on a jar. The men will take turns consuming the brain, dipped in alcohol or swallowed with cloves of garlic from a porcelain plate, all while the monkey kicks beneath them.
I remember walking with you to the grocery store, my father’s wages in your hands. How, by then, he had beaten you only twice—which meant there was still hope it would be the last.
And it's hard, really, really hard, to be an animal. There was such animal cruelty in this book that I can't get it out of my mind. I really wish I could. I don't understand the mindset of the people who did, and continue to, treat animals with extreme barbarism.
The sex was more explicit than I am comfortable reading. That's were the writing let me down, where it seemed like gratuitous semi-porn.
I listened to the Audible edition of this book, and the author narrated her own work. For me, her voice was too breathy, too self-aware. But the narration was minor. The brutality was not.
I've vacillated between 2 and 3 stars, even though I recognize that this is a well regarded book, so I'll settle on 2 ½.
I was wondering if this might be autofiction and it seems like it may be. It's wonderful writing but for some reason I struggled.
Quotes: "They say nothing lasts forever but they're just scared it will last longer than they can love it."
"The truth is one nation, under drugs, under drones."
"The two a.m. gunshots, the two p.m. gunshots, the wives and girlfriends with black eyes and cut lips, who return your gaze with lifted chins, as if to say, Mind your business."
"All freedom is relative and sometimes it's no freedom at all, but simply the cage widening far away from you."
"Remember, don't draw attention to yourself. You're already Vietnamese."
I use Post-Its while I read a book, to mark plot points, but mostly to mark well-written and moving passages. I later remove the Post-Its and write what was marked into one of my book journals. This book now resembles a bushy Post-Its porcupine because of the huge numbers of stunning phrases and passages marked. This is an amazing book.
Little Dog is son to an American and who is still violent to Rose until the police take him away one day. But growing up in Connecticut is not easy when you are mixed race, and he suffers at school for a plethora of reasons. But he does find what he thinks is love, with another boy, an all American lad called Trevor, but is it not an even relationship, rather one where Little Dog is the submissive partner.
It is not the easiest book to read as he writes about things that a lot of people would count as trigger warnings, i.e. abuse, drugs, mental health issues, cruelty and so on. Yet with his prose, he can make this tender and intimate at one moment and then before you know it, it becomes brutal and violent in the next. Sometimes these are brought together in ways that make for uncomfortable reading. It does feel that he has drawn deep on his and his families experience as he touches on some of the factors that have affected him in his life: race, immigration, acceptance and love. Definitely an experience reading this book and you are unlikely to be unaffected reading it.
What can I say? A heartbreaking, moving, honest examination of identity. The book is graphic; sex and violence and violent sex are in the background of every page, and in the foreground of many. I listened to this, Vuong reads it himself, and I am happy with that decision. That said, I borrowed the hardback from a friend so I could spend some time reviewing certain passages. I expect I will read the book in print in full before long. I am haunted by so many passages and I want to go back and spend some more time with Vuongs words.
This coming of age story pushes the reader's buttons with its poetic yet harsh descriptions of the immigrant experience, child and animal abuse, and dire conditions in postwar Vietnam. What it is lacking in plot it makes up for with vivid language and images. Recommended if you are in the mood for an unselfconsciously arty book.
Much of the story takes place in Connecticut, where I have lived most of my life, so I was able to picture some of the scenes more clearly and enjoyed that. Even so, I had no idea how something like a tobacco farm worked; I learned plenty.
What keeps me from giving this poetic memoir a five were the graphic sex scenes. They detracted from the story rather than adding to it. The author's love for Trevor is described best without those.
I'll end by giving you an idea of Vuong's stunning language:
"Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence—but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it."