A review of On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Reviewed by Nicholas Vaughan

On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous
by Ocean Vuong
Vintage Arrow – Mass Market
Sept 2020, Paperback, 256 pages, ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1529110685

On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is an autobiographical novel which explores Vuong’s family heritage, his time in Vietnam during the time of the Viet-Cong and their family’s escape to America. The book chronicles Vuong’s warm relationship with his stepfather Paul who brought him up.

Paul wanted to become the next Miles Davis, but his father wouldn’t let him, and that forced him into consignment when the opportunity came about to fight in Vietnam. Paul was going back to his roots as he adopted a pot-smoking lifestyle, trying to forget the past life he’d led, as well as the fact that he wanted to be a musician.

Vuong never reveals the name of his mother, who beat, bullied and traumatised him. His wonderful grandmother, Lan features all the way through the narrative of the book, from when they were living together with his mum, until Lan’s dying moments. She used to tell him stories of her life in Vietnam when the country was under attack by the Americans.

Vuong’s life in America as a young child in the nineties was full of racism from all levels of society, from the shopkeeper to the man who delivered the milk. His grandmother Lan didn’t know a word of English, and she used to go to the shops and hand signal or do impressions of animals to show what she wanted, something Vuong describes with an endearing empathy.

Vuong sexuality became apparent in his teen years and his coming out to his mother was not pleasant, as she told him he would be doomed and never be able to walk the streets again. As he grew up, he forged a sexual relationship with Trevor, a friend he had grown up with. Trevor was a heroin addict, and they’d both grown up in an impoverished and broken part of America that wasn’t at all friendly to immigrants.

Trevor encouraged Vuong to experiment with drugs, but he wasn’t interested. He could see there was more to life, and wanted to become a writer, which was to be his passport away from this depressing early start to his life. Trevor’s father was highly racist, suffering from extreme PTSD. Once Trevor passed away, he would go out and drink a few bottles of lager and bemoan his dead son.

The story begins as a huge flight of monarch butterflies starts their yearly migration to the south. This is a metaphor for Vuong’s migration to America from Vietnam. When the book reaches its final pages, the flight of the monarch butterflies is resumed, and we can see and hear them beating their wings in unison as they continue their journey, many dropping to their deaths en-route. This also partly explains the books title, which compares a human life with the wild beauty of the butterflies, or a sunset.

Ocean is a poet, and this shows in his writing style. The prose at times is so moving and rich, it captures you and takes you on a surrealistic trip of imagery.

About the reviewer: Nicholas Vaughan is an artist with a varied practice from sculpture to drawing, mixed media to
installation, often developing fictional texts for the illustration of his artwork. He received his degree in Sculpture from Wolverhampton University (2001) and an MA in Fine Art from Chelsea College of Art and Design (2002). His work has been shown in shows throughout Europe, including at The Corner House Gallery in Manchester and Imperial College in London as well as at Gliwice Museum in Poland. He has work in public and private collections. The Unwrapping will be his first published novel by Provoco when it comes out, and he has two print-on-demand books which are available through Amazon and other online retailers. He is currently writing two climate fantasy novels.