By Ella Johnson
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
Ocean Vuong, Penguin, 2019
In his ‘Notebook Fragments’, Ocean Vuong summarises his existence as follows: ‘An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farm girl. Thus my mother exists. Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me. / Yikes.’
Vuong is not known for crudity – far from it – but the excerpt constitutes the most magnificent distillation of the themes to which he circles back, time and again, in his work: war, violence, heritage, sex, identity.
I first encountered Vuong at the readings for the T S Eliot Prize in 2017. He was, at that time, unknown to much of the audience. He walked onto the stage of the Royal Festival hall quietly, almost apologetically – this slight, androgynous individual with a demeanour I can only describe as bashful. Waiting patiently for the audience to silence itself, I thought nerves might get the better of him. But once he started, he did not falter, delivering poem after poem from his collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, in this intensely childlike, almost diaphanous mode. Vuong is the type of poet who speaks with urgency and fragility, pushing words to the very limit of their meaning such that they remain in the air long after the poem has ended. His concurrent possession of vulnerability and strength is, I’m sure, the reason why he was victorious that day, for he went on to win the Prize, and the reason he has captivated so many in the time since.
Two years later, and the poet has turned his hand to prose for the first time. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous draws on those same themes that his verse explores – war, violence, heritage, sex, identity – and opens with a statement that is, in true Vuong style, as resolute as it is conscious of its own failure: ‘Let me begin again.’
What follows is the urgent testimony of a queer Vietnamese American boy, Little Dog, as he comes of age in an America that does not welcome his coming in the first place. On Earth is the story of epigenetic trauma, exhuming a complex family history with a genesis in the Vietnam War. And though it sounds like it might be a work of autofiction (as is often the case with Vuong’s verse), it eludes that label – for this text belongs to Little Dog and Little Dog alone: this is his epistle of confession, self-realisation, and beauty.
The novel is structured as a letter from the narrator to his illiterate mother, Rose, who works as a manicurist in a Connecticut nail salon. She suffers from PTSD and is sometimes tender, often violent. It is only the impossibility of her reading this letter, we are told, that makes Little Dog’s telling possible. They live together with schizophrenic grandmother Lan, who relies on fabrication, storytelling and flat-out denial to cope with her past. For the trio, then, trauma is the bedrock of daily existence. Vuong masterfully reflects this sense of dislocation in the form of the novel: relentlessly ranging from historical recollection to personal meditation, political tangent to lyrical motif, this is a book that doesn’t let you sit still. As Little Dog vainly tries to piece together the debris of his family’s life, so too his letter refuses to be whole.
So why the need for a generic one-eighty? According to the writer, poetry ‘lets you off the hook’: he didn’t want that privilege this time around. With prose, the turning of a page demands the continuation of the world that has been created, not the termination thereof. The novel is longer, larger – cannot be drafted in a single sitting before being put away and forgotten about. And it is this scope – the scope of an aftermath – which agonised the writer. Vuong has described the process of writing On Earth – which took four years – as an act of ‘surrender’. The reader gets a sense of this sacrifice: to enter Little Dog’s world is to surrender to the trials and turbulences of his existence. It is tricky to do so.
Vuong sketches out the immigrant experience in rich and humiliating terms in this text. The narrator jumps associationally from memory to memory, recalling here a bullying incident (at nine years old on the school bus), and there a phone call (with his mother’s boss, asking to cut her hours when she is unable to do so herself). One particularly uncomfortable flashback sees Rose in the supermarket, trying to buy oxtail so that she can make bún bò huê. Finding the language barrier to be insurmountable as ever, she resorts to a kind of bovine pantomime before the butcher. At a loss, he can only chuckle awkwardly, and the family leaves despondently with Wonder Bread and a jar of mayonnaise.
The experience of being an immigrant, then, is portrayed as retrospective; Little Dog is always looking backwards in his quest towards self-understanding. This letter draws not only on Little Dog’s own history but those of his forebears. We witness flashbacks to Rose’s former suffering at the hands of her abusive husband. So too Lan’s experiences as a young woman carrying the baby of an unknown American soldier show every day to be a battle for survival. (‘No bang bang,’ she begs a US marine in one interlude, holding her newborn with one hand raised in surrender, and standing in a puddle of her own urine. ‘No bang bang. Yoo et aye numbuh won’.) These women’s lives, then, have been irrevocably shaped by the legacies of violent men.
And it is precisely this notion that Vuong places front and centre of his novel. This family, and these women, he suggests, became American as soon as the Americans set foot in Vietnam. On Earth is thus the tale of American violence, told by the very people whose ‘tongues were made obsolete’ by its gunfire.
Vuong’s examination of American inhumanity is eerily reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s own take on the Vietnam War in his 1987 masterpiece, Full Metal Jacket, which sees fresh-faced bootcamp recruits arrive at Parris Island to be trained up as killers. Hurled into a tempest of physical, verbal and psychological abuse at the hands of drill instructor Sergeant Hartman, the gradual breakdown of these boys’ humanity is paralleled by the broken-backed structure of the film. Like Vuong, the director favours self-contained moments of brutality over a cohesive plotting of event. This formal unruliness makes what unfolds all the more difficult to stomach.
Kubrick’s association of sex and warfare in the film is unnerving at best. Forced to substitute human affection for monstrosity, the recruits dutifully recite love poems to their rifles each night before they get into bed. Hartman’s misogynistic indoctrinations find particularly uncomfortable corollary when the newly appointed marines go to war in the film’s second half, as they haggle with Vietnamese sex-workers on street corners (one cannot help but think of Lan), and, finally, as they murder the lethal girl-sniper at the close of the film. Full Metal Jacket surely exposes the kind of corrupted American masculinity that proliferated during the war, when heroism was reinvented as chauvinism and a killer instinct. But most crucially, the victims of this corruption – the very same that populate Vuong’s novel – will never know an end to its consequences.
War, violence, heritage, sex, identity: Little Dog’s genealogy is constituted by each and every one of these tales of conflict. And it is only in coming to terms with this history that his own identity can be realised. Just like Lan’s ever-evolving anecdotes which permeate the narrative, the narrator is able to reclaim his past through the act of storytelling. And this is where the structural conceit of the letter comes into its own, setting up a dialogue between Little Dog and the women who came before him: ‘I am writing to you from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son.’
Some have claimed that the text is directed too rhetorically at dead air. It is true that lingering always at the back of the reader’s mind is the knowledge that the person to whom this letter is addressed will never be able to understand its contents. Vuong’s suggestion, though, is that all articulation – even that which is futile – is worthy. This is just as much a conversation with the self as with another.
Vuong’s greatest triumph in this book is his depiction of Little Dog’s sexual exploration. The protagonist meets a boy called Trevor while working on a tobacco farm in the summer (underage, underpaid and unbeknownst to his mother), and they embark on an unlikely love affair. Unlikely because Trevor has been brought up in the ‘muscle’ of American masculinity; but he too has been exposed to trauma, as the son of an alcoholic man and an absentee mother, and being embroiled in his own OxyContin addiction. For Little Dog and Trevor alike, one thing is clear: to be an American is to be displaced. Their mutual sense of powerlessness combines with desire to radical effect in the text.
Vuong constructs the queer body as a kind of temporal entity, free from the architectures of state, where sex becomes the primary means by which to achieve agency, articulation, and joy. In contrast to heteronormative procreation, with its necessary eye to the future, the queer experience is immediate, present, urgent. Sex is thus a form of escapism for the pair: Trevor and Little Dog cling onto brief moments of tenderness in the knowledge that they can never get them back. And it is this notion to which the title of the novel gestures: in youth, there is a fleeting moment of perfection and joy which cannot be carried into the future. In Little Dog’s words: ‘it was beauty we risked ourselves for’.
The writer teases out the particulars of the couple’s more intimate moments with a rawness that would be vulgar if it were not so moving. Little Dog notes, when speaking frankly about sex, that ‘no one had shown us how this was to be done’, that in pornography ‘it was always quick, immediate, sure and spotless’. Their inexperience amounts to a sort of fumbling about in the dark, and we witness each of their blunders, discomforts and humiliations.
Vuong is guilty of crossing over into sentimentality at times: there are passages that feel linguistically overworked (one line reads ‘it’s not fair that the word laughter is trapped inside slaughter’) and lyrical meditations which appear sometimes superfluous. But the writer is nonetheless at his best when he is in the detail, and, indeed, his more cliché depictions of love are permanently shored up against our knowledge of Lan and Rose’s harrowing youths by comparison. The vernacular of destruction is never far away in the text, and Trevor and Little Dog’s relationship cannot help but be tainted by it. As such, moments of tenderness are frequently undercut with violence. Much in the same way as Kubrick’s recruits kiss their rifles before bed, Little Dog knows that to love Trevor is to love the thing that will, in the end, be his downfall. A piece of Vuong’s earlier verse vividly encapsulates this notion, the speaker describing his lover’s scrotum as ‘a bruised fruit’: ‘I kissed it /lightly, the way one might kiss a grenade before hurling it into the night’s mouth’.
Little Dog’s clumsiness affords a striking humanness to this tale: his experience is one that falters. Vuong adroitly weaves this sense of doubt into the fabric of the text, which abounds in digressions and dead ends. Twice the prose disintegrates into verse, and halfway through Little Dog restarts his letter altogether: ‘Let me begin again’.
But while the reader soon realises that not every detour has a destination, this fact does not render them futile – because to be lost, Vuong urges, is not to be wrong. ‘Let me begin again’, Little Dog says, demanding to be allowed to regenerate, to be renewed once more. Vuong’s eminently readable prose means that the text never feels disorganised as a consequence of this uncertainty: he traverses fragments with ease so that they dislocate the novel’s language into meaning.
The New Yorker contributor Laura Miller once described the stereotypical poet’s novel as ‘introspective, replete with long passages of description, and scant of plot’. If this holds true for On Earth, then Vuong’s ability to bring luminosity to the mundane becomes one of the highlights of this debut, which exhibits all the precision of poetry without feeling arduous in its expanded form. Take his descriptions of Rose’s nail salon, where back room aromas of ‘cloves, cinnamon, ginger, mint, and cardamom [mix] with formaldehyde, toluene, aceton, Pine-sol, and bleach’. Or Trevor’s grey eyes, which are said to be ‘smattered with bits of brown ember’ like ‘something burning under an overcast sky’. On Earth does not mark a total departure from Vuong’s poetic roots, then, but is a gloriously hybridised version thereof.
Scantiness of plot is also key. On Earth is a novel driven not so much by events as by proximity, for it is the product of what happens when bodies occupy the same space. By thus circumnavigating the hegemonic, linear form of his literary predecessors, Vuong suggests an alternative mode of storytelling – one that is circuitous and self-conscious.
Novelist Max Porter has observed how ‘it seems obvious now that a gay young poet born in Saigon would write the great American novel’. It is almost as though the tale of America – whatever that may be – could only be realised externally, by someone who is both within and without. Little Dog undergoes a similar sort of revelation while writing his own tale out on the page: ‘It was an accident, my beauty revealed to me […] Because the thing about beauty is that it’s only beautiful outside itself’.
ELLA JOHNSON reads English at St Peter's. She continues to be disheartened that her friends think English isn't a real degree.
Art by Tara Kelly