Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 9 August 2020

Review: Ocean Vuong's 'On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous' is a stunning debut

In an eye-opening account of living with someone with a mental illness, the narrator delineates how you are waiting for glimpses of the “real” person that flickers in and out, obfuscated by their illness

Vietnamese-American author Ocean Vuong. Courtesy Penguin Random House
Vietnamese-American author Ocean Vuong. Courtesy Penguin Random House

Winner of the 2016 Whiting Award and the 2017 T S Eliot Prize, Ocean Vuong is an era-defining poet whose ethereal writing surges with a heady combination of sentimentality and vigour. The piercing vulnerability that made his debut poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, stand out is etched over this sublime autobiographical first novel, which is essentially a letter written in the form of vignettes by a Vietnamese-American writer to his illiterate mother. With sparing paragraphs that mostly begin with “The time when”, the narrative reads like snapshots in time, evoking nostalgia and the yearning for connection.

Affectionately known as Little Dog, the narrator has a mother who has post-traumatic stress disorder, works at a nail salon and hits him way too often. The English language is her Achilles heel and making sure that her son does not suffer the same embarrassment has been her primary goal since he was little.

Since English is mostly alien to his mother, it is telling that the narrator chose this language to write to her. Maybe he chose English precisely because of that, to camouflage his more personal facets in a medium he knows his mother would not fully understand. Language then serves as his refuge, since he observes that “the very impossibility of your reading this is all that makes my writing it possible”.

The significance of this language barrier between the narrator and his family is a running conflict. Once, when Little Dog is bullied, Ma slaps him for not finding a way to stop them despite being articulate in English. She feels defenceless and insecure not knowing the language since “one does not ‘pass’ in ­America, it seems, without English”. Whenever she would almost convince someone she was American, her lack of fluency outed her. She instructs him to have a “bellyful of English” as his defence. English, then, was the badge of honour for an immigrant, an armour against discrimination. Little Dog soon internalises this and ­becomes his family’s interpreter in how he “wore my English, like a mask, so that the others would see my face, and therefore yours”.

While violence remains the legacy of trauma for Little Dog’s mother, it manifested itself in a different way in his grandmother’s case.

He used to wait to watch his schizophrenic grandmother Lan sleep. “Only in this twitching quiet did her brain, wild and explosive during waking hours, cool itself into something like calm.”

In an eye-opening account of living with someone with a mental illness, the narrator delineates how you are waiting for glimpses of the “real” person that flickers in and out, obfuscated by their illness. Her Vietnam War story is harrowing to read and gives an unflinching peek at the trauma inflicted on those who survived the violence.

The novel takes a more sentimental turn when the narrator meets Trevor, a redneck, while they both work in tobacco fields. This relationship would then become an emotional symphony of pleasure and pain, doomed not only because Trevor would soon be ­addicted to OxyContin, which was initially prescribed to him as a painkiller.

With that, Vuong delivers a searing indictment of America’s opioid crisis, which is propelled by giant pharmaceutical companies. At one point, Little Dog wryly remarks that “I want to meet the millionaire of American sadness”.

In the second half, the ­narrative becomes a more affecting coming-of-age story of addiction.

The elegant profundity of the writing is what really sets it apart, ­especially when ­addressing intricacies of the familial bonds.

The elegant profundity of the writing is what really sets it apart, ­especially when ­addressing intricacies of the familial bonds.

Another overarching theme of the novel is how immigration is not an act, but a continuous process. Vuong is a master at making an indelible impression with pithy sentences. The narrator realises how his Ma endures to fortify her Americanness when, at a Goodwill store, she holds a white dress and asks him “Do I look like a real American?”.

Vuong comes across as a connoisseur of words in how prudently he uses them in his sentences. Yiyun Li, his Chinese-American contemporary, comes to mind in this regard, as he is also brilliant at writing exacting, eloquent prose. Suburbs are described at having “suicidally pristine lawns”, a living room with the TV on is “miserable with laughter”. Gender discrimination is alluded to with this astutely worded sentence: “… A boy on a pink bike must learn, above all else, the law of gravity.”

At a crucial moment, when the narrator and his Ma are exchanging truths, he reflects on how this was akin to “cutting one another”.

The language of the prose is iridescent, elliptical and ­pulsates with visceral beauty. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a glorious ode to fractured memory and legacy. It is about remembering what is lost and making sense of what remains.

Updated: August 1, 2019 07:42 PM

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