Ruby Porter on the first novel by acclaimed Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong.
I came across Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds last year. I read it twice in one day. I was staying outside of New York, at the time, and taking the train in each morning. I remember being disappointed when we pulled into Grand Central Station.
Now, Vuong has published On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It’s his debut novel, but if you’ve read his poetry, some of the story will sound familiar. A woman, born to a Vietnamese mother and a nameless GI, emigrates with her son to America. Her husband is violent and elusive. Her son becomes a writer; she still can’t read.
His first chapter was originally published as memoir by The New Yorker back in 2017. The blurb on the jacket calls it “a brutally honest exploration of race, class and masculinity”. His epigraph from Joan Didion begins: “I want to tell you the truth”. That’s not to say that this is memoir. His grandmother, for example, had three daughters – in this book she has two. But it reminds me of something I remember Frankie McMillan saying when she was giving a lecture last year. “Poetry doesn’t have to be true, but it has to have a poetic truth to it.” On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous has a poetic truth.
This book is a love letter. Little Dog, the protagonist, is writing to his mum Rose. Except that Rose can’t read. A napalm raid destroyed her school when she was five, and she never entered a classroom again. “When it comes to words, you possess fewer than the coins you saved from your nail salon tips in the milk gallon under the kitchen cabinet.” And yet words are what Little Dog trades in. Language becomes the gap between them, growing, as well as the only way he knows to try to suture it. “Dear Ma, I am writing to reach you – even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.” There are some destinations that can never be reached.
Little Dog says of memory: “Whether we want to or not, we are traveling in a spiral, we are creating something new from what is gone.” It’s a kind of spiralling that crops up again and again in the novel, on a structural as well as a line level. This is not a linear story. As early as the first page of the second chapter, Little Dog tells us he has gone to university, become a poet. This is in past tense, and yet, in places, his memories are in present (though most of the book is in first person, some difficult memories are told in third):
“I don’t want you to be my mom anymore.” His voice strangely deeper, more full.
“You hear me? You’re a monster-”
And with that her head is lopped off its shoulders.
No, she’s bending over, examining something between her feet.
His childhood is made up of shuffled vignettes. We jump ahead at times, once to an afternoon where his lover Trevor crashes his dad’s pickup truck, before we’ve even met him. And we jump backwards – back before Little Dog’s birth, back, even, to just after Rose’s. In one stunning passage, his grandmother Lan, carrying the baby Rose, encounters US soldiers at the edge of her village. Close by, or not at all, five men feed vodka to a macaque and tie it to a beam under a table. Lan, with almost no English, tries to communicate with the soldier, the boy, in front of her, “her tongue on the cliff of a sentence”. But, as happens often in this novel, it is an act of miscommunication. The whole scene feels like a match, ready to spark. “A flash of teeth, a finger on the trigger, the boy saying, ‘No. No, step back.'” Lan pisses herself before she’s allowed to pass. And the macaque? Its feet scuff the ground, its mouth is muffled behind a leather strap, its skull is cut open, and its brain spooned out. The way Vuong oscillates between the two images, the helpless mother and the helpless monkey, is masterful. Circling throughout is the phrase: “It is a beautiful country”.
The writing is rich with repetition. Rose, and her mother, Lan, buy mood rings, then ask Little Dog to read them.
“Yes. You’re both happy,’ I answered, knowing nothing. “You’re both happy, Ma. Yes,” I said again. Because gunshots, lies, and oxtail – or whatever you want to call your god – should say Yes over and over, in cycles, in spirals, with no other reason but to hear itself exist. Because love, at its best, repeats itself.
This book is a love letter. Rose and Lan are captured with such tenderness and detail. Lan, who asks Little Dog to pluck the “snow’”from her head, and tempts him down from trees with Cool Ranch Doritos when he’s run away from home. Rose, who works at a nail parlour, and doesn’t flinch when she’s asked to massage the air below a woman’s stump, where her shin and foot should’ve been, who spends the last of her pay cheque on Govida chocolates to share. Both of them, Lan and Rose, making horns and tails with fingers, wiggling and mooing, when they don’t know the word for oxtail at the C-Town butcher.
These are not one-dimensional portraits. Lan and Rose live with PTSD. When Rose finds a white dress in a Goodwill sale, she asks Little Dog to read the tag and tell her whether it’s fireproof. He can’t read yet himself, so he lies. “‘That’s good to know, baby.’ You stared off, stone-faced, over my shoulder, the dress held to your chest. ‘That’s so good.” The novel starts, of all places, with a chapter about how Rose used to hit Little Dog: “The first time you hit me, I must have been four. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My mouth a blaze of touch.”
This book is a love letter, but it is a love letter versed in the ways of war. “I didn’t know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves – but merely echoes, a sound forming on the face of your own son. Boom.” Violence reverberates through the pages, through the characters and their actions, into the very verbs themselves: “the Amtrak slashes past lots stacked with shelled cars and farm tractors shot through with rust”; the streetlights fling by, hitting Rose and Lan’s faces “with the force of blows”. Exchanging secrets is called “cutting one another”. Winter roses, “in full bloom along the national bank, are suicide notes”. The sky is “bludgeoned”, the day “smouldering up at its edges”. Sound shines “like a knife” and a dollar store painting of peaches, in a hallway too narrow to view it, becomes “more aftermath than art”. There are times Little Dog wakes, thinking a bullet is inside him. And Trevor insists on wearing a helmet in so many of Little Dog’s memories.
Trevor is also trapped in a cycle of violence. His grandfather owns a tobacco farm – that’s where they meet. He lives with his dad, who sometimes beats him; he shoots at squirrels and crashes cars; he thinks he’ll grow out of being “a fag”. And yet, through all his aggression and internalised homophobia, there is real beauty and connection in their relationship too. Vuong doesn’t shy away from depicting early sexual experiences. These scenes are raw and loving, passionate and sad. There’s elastic band snaps and wet lips and greased palms and beads of moisture at the tips of cocks; there’s Trevor, afterwards, crying quietly in the dark.
Often, scenes with Trevor involve water metaphors. His heart ripples his skin like a “trapped fish”. Little Dog feels certain memories with him as “floods”.
Little Dog’s America – the backrooms of nail parlours, Chinese butchers, the smell of pho – is vastly different from Trevor’s. His America is fentanyl patches, a TV on in the background, empty cans and shell casings from a Smith & Wesson. His America is “two-hour drives to nowhere and a Burger King at the edge of the county, a day of tense talk with his old man, the rust from the electric razor he shared with that old man, how I would always find it on his sink in its sad plastic case”.
It’s a novel of many Americas, but middle class America is only ever seen in flashes, like something out of a car window. “I could smell their fresh-laundered clothes, the lavender and lilac in the softeners” Little Dog says of his bullies on the school bus. Another chapter opens with him describing the breeze: “an August night, sweet, but cut with the bleach smell of lawn chemicals – the scent of manicured suburban yards – and I realise I am not in my own house”. As a reader, we come to that realisation too. Lawn chemicals, even the existence of lawns themselves, feels so distant from his own Hartford neighbourhood, with its basketball courts and crackheads and shattered glass. He’s staying with his grandfather – not a biological one, but a Vietnam vet, Lan’s husband, for a while. This, too, dawns on Little Dog: “And it comes to me: I’m in Virginia, on summer break. I’m nine.”
A “coming to” occurs again and again at the start of chapters; often, there is a sense of waking up into a scene. It’s the disorientation of memories and dreams. It’s the disorientation of being Vietnamese and gay and poor in America. “I’m dragged into a hole, darker than the night around it, by two women. Only when one screams do I know who I am.” The chapters are all unnumbered, unnamed, heralded simply by blank space.
There are instances, occasionally, where the writing becomes too explicit. In the opening pages, Little Dog explains the significance of his attempt to teach his mother to read: “But that act (a son teaching his mother) reversed our hierarchies, and with it our identities, which, in this country, were already tenuous and tethered.” It seems like a slight unwillingness, on Vuong’s part, to trust the prose reader. This act is not something which Vuong feels necessary to explain in Night Sky with Exit Wounds. There’s a poem about it, ‘The Gift’, which is both more complex and more concrete.
a b c a b c a – the pencil snaps.
The b bursting its belly
as dark dust blows
through a blue-lined sky
But his confidence in us grows as On Earth progresses. His poetry seeps more and more into his prose. There’s a chapter about Trevor where enjambment and double spaces punctuate the lines. The effect is like someone taking a deep painful breath, before telling the story anyway:
He touches the trigger’s black tongue and you swear you taste his finger in your mouth
as it pulls. Trevor pointing at the one-winged sparrow thrashing in the black dirt and takes it
for something new. Something smouldering like a word. Like a Trevor
who knocked on your window at three in the morning, who you thought was smiling until you saw the blade held over his mouth. I made this, I made this for you, he said, the knife suddenly in your hand.
There’s another, similar chapter, where Little Dog directs Rose around Hartford, driven by his own memories: “Take a right, Ma. There’s a lot behind the bait and tackle shack where one summer I watched Trevor skin a racoon.” It’s a rare moment in this book – someone finding or offering direction – yet still, at the end, she has to reverse, to spiral: “Take a right on Risley. If you forget me, then you’ve gone too far. Turn back.”
But it’s not just lines that are broken up, it’s words too. Vuong gets inside of them in the way only a poet can: “It’s not fair that the word laughter is trapped inside slaughter.” He listens to English for its eccentricities, its flukes, its double meanings: “I’m broken in two, the message said. In two, it was the only thought I could keep, sitting in my seat, how losing a person could make more of us, the living, make us two.” Or, “And we cracked up. We cracked open. We fell apart like that, laughing.”
This book is a love letter. It’s Little Dog’s love letter to Rose, but it also feels, in ways, like Vuong’s love letter to language. It’s the ground he mines for so many of his metaphors. “Behind her, the fields have begun to catch. A braid of smoke through a page-blank sky.” In the hands of a lesser writer, this could be terrible. But Vuong’s words are always so fresh. His images feel startling and new. The rain flecks bare feet with quotation marks, the wind makes “a lexicon of the leaves”, the bones of Rose’s spine become “a row of ellipses no silence translates”. And then there’s Trevor, “with the scar like a comma on his neck, syntax of what next what next what next.”
“You have a bellyful of English.” That’s what Rose says to Little Dog at the start of the book. Meaning, use it. Well, he has.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong (Jonathan Cape, $34) is available at Unity Books.
Ruby Porter’s debut novel Attraction (Text Publishing, $37) is also available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.