[This new novel by Vietnamese-American poet and writer Ocean
Vuong, is an immigrants story that, writes reviewer McAlpin, is also
about "beauty, survival, and freedom, which sometimes isnt freedom at
all."] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 'ON EARTH' IS GORGEOUS ALL THE WAY THROUGH  
[https://portside.org/2019-07-03/earth-gorgeous-all-way-through] 

 

 Heller McAlpin 
 June 5, 2019
NPR
[https://www.npr.org/2019/06/05/729691730/on-earth-is-gorgeous-all-the-way-through]


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 _ This new novel by Vietnamese-American poet and writer Ocean Vuong,
is an immigrant's story that, writes reviewer McAlpin, is also about
"beauty, survival, and freedom, which sometimes isn't freedom at all."
_ 

 , 

 

_On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
A Novel_
Ocean Vuong
Penguin
ISBN-13: 978-0525562023

Ocean Vuong's devastatingly beautiful first novel, as evocative as its
title, is a painful but extraordinary coming-of-age story about
surviving the aftermath of trauma. It takes the form of a young
Vietnamese American writer's letter to his illiterate mother — her
education having ended at seven, when her school in Vietnam collapsed
after an American napalm raid.

The son knows that chances are slim that his mother, whose grasp of
English is limited, will actually read his confessional missive. _On
Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous_ is more about processing and
articulating difficult memories than about direct communication.
Grappling with the limits of language, he is "trying to break free" by
writing.

The result is a fractured narrative of a fractured family, torn by
harrowing experiences — those of the mother and grandmother in
Vietnam, and of the boy they raised together in Hartford, Conn., in
the 1990s. Abused by his loving but mentally ill mother and tormented
by schoolmates, the narrator, Little Dog, eventually finds solace in
his first love affair, a tragic relationship with a rough American
teenager ravaged by drugs. His true salvation, however, comes mostly
in reading and writing, which cracks open his understanding of his
family's history.

Vuong, who was born on a rice farm outside Saigon in 1988 and
emigrated to Hartford in 1990, received the T.S. Eliot Prize and a
Whiting Award, among other prizes, for his debut poetry collection,
_Night Sky with Exit Wounds. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous _should
seal his literary stature. I had to read this book in small doses,
absorbing its blows a little at a time — not because the often
elliptical, poetic language is difficult, but because the subject
matter is so shattering.

"What do we mean when we say survivor?" Little Dog asks, following a
litany of his mother's attacks: "The time with your fists ... The time
with a gallon of milk ... The time, at 13, when I finally said stop."
He knows her abuse is tied to PTSD, but adds, "You're a mother, Ma.
You're also a monster. But so am I, which is why I can't turn away
from you."

Although schizophrenic, his grandmother Lan is frequently his
protector. When he tries to run away at 10, she tells him, "She love
you, Little Dog. But she sick. Sick like me. In the brains."

As payment for plucking the white "snow" from his grandmother's hair,
she tells him stories. He learns that he's called Little Dog because
"To love something ... is to name it after something so worthless it
might be left untouched — and alive." She tells him how, after
leaving her arranged marriage at 17, she was rejected by her mother;
desperate, she became a sex worker for American GIs. Little Dog's
mother, born when Lan was 28, had an American father — though not
the kind Virginia farmer he grew up thinking was his grandfather.

Vuong writes of the new immigrant's temporary nail salon work that
becomes permanent, "a place where dreams become calcified knowledge of
what it means to be awake in American bones — with or without
citizenship — aching, toxic, and underpaid." He writes of Tiger
Woods, another mixed-race byproduct of the Vietnam War, and of
Hartford, the former city of Mark Twain and Wallace Stevens, now a
place of gunshots "where fathers were phantoms, dipping in and out of
shadows and their children's lives."

Vuong's language soars as he writes of beauty, survival, and freedom,
which sometimes isn't freedom at all, but 'simply the cage widening
far away from you, the bars abstracted with distance but still there.'

At 14, Little Dog takes his first steps toward his own life, biking
miles to a summer job on a tobacco farm outside Hartford, where he
meets "The boy from whom I learned there was something even more
brutal and total than work — want." Trevor, the farmer's grandson,
white though hardly privileged, hooked on the painkillers he was
prescribed for a broken ankle at 15, lives with his weepy, inebriated
father in a mobile home behind the interstate. Little Dog learns
during the course of their relationship, which spans years, that "Sex
can get you close to a boy. But language ... gets you deeper."

While this coming-out story, which dominates the middle section of the
book, is a tale of a desired kind of obliteration, the final section
addresses a more total annihilation. "I know, Ma, this book is marked
by death, by deaths. But that is only to say it is a book of life, of
living," Little Dog writes.

Vuong's language soars as he writes of beauty, survival, and freedom,
which sometimes isn't freedom at all, but "simply the cage widening
far away from you, the bars abstracted with distance but still there,"
like animals in nature preserves. He insists that he and his mother
were born not from war, as he long thought, but from beauty. "Let no
one mistake us for the fruit of violence — but rather, that
violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it."

The title says it: Gorgeous.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly
for NPR.org, _The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The
Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle_ and other
publications.

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