“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong has instantly become my favourite book of the year out of all the 16 I have read so far in 2020. If you were wondering, that is the author’s actual name, it was changed into Ocean by his mother after she has separated from her husband, who was the one to give the boy his name first, when he was born.
“[…] A name, something given by a mother or father, something weightless yet carried forever, like a heartbeat.” (p. 38)
I was hesitant to pick up the book knowing of the author’s background as a poet (who has been writing poems for 8 years by 2020) & not being a fan of poems myself but I was positively surprised, since his skills enriched this book in the most positive way. The book has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 6 weeks & it was one of the reasons why I’ve heard about it & decided to pick it up in the 1st place.
I was taken on an emotional roller-coaster, having been touched to tears with certain passages or having laughed along to others. From the first pages on I have noted how a mesmerising flow & rhythm have been created, little vivid images crystallising themselves in front of your eyes with the pace of the reading. At times I found myself intentionally reading slower in order to savour the words, the phrases, to make the enjoyment last.
“His mouth opens and closes rapidly. He is asking a question, or questions, he is turning the air around his words into weather.” (p. 37)
“I drove my face into his as if into a climate, the autobiography of a season.” (p. 111)
“Because the sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted. (p. 238)
I couldn’t have been gladder to read this book during the time of the confinement due to the COVID-19 virus since it gave me the possibility to take the time for this review & countless hours of diving into various interviews with Ocean.
The best part of the book was the language for me. I would compare it to something like a spiderweb, something that is so mundane, but so fragile & tender when inspected properly and offering ceaseless fascination when looked upon in the right light. As the author explains it, to him language is the way you can touch someone the deepest. With a physical touch, you only get to the surface, to the skin. Language on the other hand has the power to go deeper than any human touch.
“It’s in these moments, next to you, that I envy words for doing what we can never do – how they can tell all of themselves simply by standing still, simply by being. Imagine I could lie down beside you and my whole body, every cell, radiates a clear, singular meaning, not so much a writer as a word pressed down beside you.” (p. 171)
Never have I ever highlighted that many passages, phrases or sentences while reading a book (you know you’re in trouble when you start with yellow post-its for parts you love, then add on some orange ones for parts that you’re even more in awe with & some blue ones to follow one of your favourite recurring themes :D). So many expressions had such visual comparisons that the author succeeded in transporting you to different worlds over & over again.
“The air around us dark red, or perhaps that’s how all evenings, rendered in my memory of him, appear. Bludegeoned.” (p. 167)
“He was about to say something else, his teeth grey pills in the moonlight […]” (p. 150)
“My forehead pressed to the seat in front of me, I kicked my shoes, gently at first, then faster. My sneakers erupted with silent flares: the world’s smallest ambulances, going nowhere.” (p. 25)
“Because a bullet without a body is a song without ears.” (p. 77)
“You spoke carefully, as if the story was a flame in your hands in the wind.” (p. 134)
Hearing the author mention that it was a huge effort to choose all those words perfectly, makes it even more special. You really feel that his work is extremely important to him (I mention this because I just finished the book “Vox” by Christina Dalcher before this one, where I found an example of where the author seems to not care at all about her book).
“That’s what writing is, after all the nonsense, getting down so low the world offers a merciful new angle, a larger vision made of small things, the lint suddenly a huge sheet of fog exactly the size of your eyeball.” (p. 189)
I won’t be able to add all the quotes, but here a couple of my favourite ones, in order to get a feeling for Ocean’s writing (I’ll include all the rest of the quotes I have noted down in the very end of this review, if you might be interested in them).
“Did you know people get rich off of sadness? I want to meet the millionaire of American sadness. I want to look him in the eye, shake his hand and say, ‘It’s been an honor to serve my country.’ ” (p. 181)
“Sometimes, when I’m careless, I believe the wound is also the place where the skin reencounters itself, asking of each end, where have you been?” (p. 137)
“The weight of the average placenta is roughly one and a half pounds. A disposable organ where nutrients, hormones, and waste are passed between mother and fetus. In this way, the placenta is a kind of language – perhaps our first one, our true mother tongue.” (p. 137)
There is one last passage that literally sent goosebumps down my skin, which came up towards the middle of the book:
“They will want you to succeed, but never more than them. They will write their names on your leash and call you necessary, call you urgent.” (p. 185)
Somehow those 2 adjectives sounded really familiar to me & that’s when I realised that I’ve already read them – within another author’s comment on Vuong’s work on the back of the book:
” ‘Luminous, shattering, urgent, necessary. But the word I keep circling back to is raw: that’s how powerful the emotions here are.’ – Celeste Ng”
I still wonder whether Celeste has written that review herself & whether that created effect of including specifically her quote was intentional or not.
Watching an interview with the author on his process of writing makes it even more impressive how calm & atmospheric the setting of the book comes across, whereas his actual surroundings were anything but, having finished the book in a closet to escape the chaos & noise of his roommates.
“The room is silent as a photograph.” (p. 195)
Speaking of the structure of the book, it’s not separated by chapters in a classical way. It is composed of 3 parts throughout which frequent flashbacks dominate the story-telling. The main element being that it’s written in the form of a letter from a son to his mother, who can’t actually read. It might be a bit challenging to go through it at times but it all wraps up really beautifully in the end. The story drifts & flows, moving gently like waves, circling gently around the few characters the story is concentrated on (Little Dog – the main character, his mother, his grandmother, his grandfather & Little Dog’s lover).
“In a previous draft of this letter, one I’ve since deleted, I told you how I came to be a writer. How I, the first in our family to go to college, squandered it on a degree in English. How I fled my shitty high school to spend my days in New York lost in library stacks, reading obscure texts by dead people, most of whom never dreamed a face like mine floating over their sentences – and least of all that those sentences would save me. But none of that matters now. What matters is that all of it, even if I didn’t know it then, brought me here, to this page, to tell you everything you’ll never know.” (p. 15)
The author also explains himself that creating the book that way was a very intentional choice, in order to portray a certain fragmentation of identities and of the American society in which he, as well as the main character grew up in. He calls the parts the story is comprised of, “vignettes”, explaining that he wanted the novel to be broken apart purposefully.
“I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck – the pieces floating, finally legible.” (p. 190)
What I kept wondering about while reading the book, was where the lines can be drawn on where the autobiographical details stop and the fictitious details were added. “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is classified as a semi-biographical novel & I couldn’t help but keep on seeing Ocean himself in the main character. The similarities are uncanny, both of them are: homosexual boys with Vietnamese origins, having grown up in Hartford around Vietnamese refugee women (the mothers of both not being able to read in English) in a nail salon, having a grandma who told folk tales at home, living in a physically abusive household, having a white American grandfather, having gone to Brooklyn College & having become writers. There are even some stories taken directly from Ocean’s memories, such as when he was put in a corner by his teacher at school when he was little & being so “invisible”, that he was forgotten there well into lunch break. Each time a childhood story popped up, I kept on wondering whether it was another real one from the life of the author.
“[…] One night when I was little, I woke to a blizzard outside. I was five or six and didn’t know things ended. I thought the snow would continue to the sky’s brim – then beyond, touching god’s fingertips as he dozed in his reading chair, the equations scattered across the floor of his study. That by morning we would all be sealed inside a blue-white stillness and no one would have to leave. Ever.” (p. 191)
“That was the day I learned how dangerous a color can be. That a boy could be knocked off that shade and made to reckon his trespass. Even if color is nothing but what the light reveals, that nothing has laws, and a boy on a pink bike must learn, above all else, the law of gravity.” (p. 135)
The way sexuality is portrayed is very raw & touching, as the author says himself, he particularly wanted to portray it in its at times awkward way. He mentions how for a queer individual there usually never is a conversation about the “birds & bees” with the parents, they don’t explain how that individual would find pleasure but that the learning rather takes place by finding pleasure through failure, through trial & error.
“The Greeks thought sex was the attempt of two bodies, separated long ago, to return to one life. I don’t know if I believe this but that’s what it felt like: as if we were two people mining one body, and in doing so, merged, until no corner was left saying I.” (p. 202)
“There were colors, Ma. Yes, there were colors I felt when I was with him. Not words – but shades, penumbras.” (p. 106)
“I got what I wanted – a boy swimming toward me. Except I was no shore, Ma. I was driftwood trying to remember what I had broken from to get here.” (p. 108)
“And he follows, when I sway this way he swerves along. And I look up to him as if looking at a kite, his entire body tied to the teetering world of my head.” (p. 118)
To top it all off, there’s a passage that touches on one of the main topics of the background story of the book. The way masculinity is stigmatised in the American society and how it turns into toxicity when it doesn’t allow anything but coldness and harshness to be the only identifiers of male characters. It even continues onto the language that is used for male success, as the author illustrates, which includes violence as a descriptive element.
“But why can’t the language for creativity be the language of regeneration? You killed that poem, we say. You’re a killer. You came in to that novel guns blazing. I am hammering this paragraph, I am banging them out, we say. I owned that workshop. I shut it down. I crushed them. We smashed the competition. I’m wrestling with the muse. The state, where people live, is a battleground state. The audience a target audience. ‘Good for you, man,’ a man once said to me at a party, ‘you’re making a killing with poetry. You’re knockin’ ’em dead.‘ ” (p. 179)
If you’re curious to watch some interviews of the author speaking about “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” & where I got some of my infos from, here is the full list. I really suggest you to look into these, for me personally they increased my appreciation & fascination for the author. He comes across as very humble, incredibly intelligent, creative, making you want to hear him speak & express his opinion on & on.
- A panel at the International Literature Festival in Berlin (here I found out about some of the author’s favourite German writers – Kafka, Rilke… & it’s also the most detailed account of why the author constructed the novel the way he did)
- An interview on the Amanpour and Company YouTube channel (to understand the drive behind the author’s writing);
- A narrative by the author on the VICE News YouTube channel (with beautiful illustrations & quotes taken directly from the book);
- An interview with Seth Meyers on the Late Night Show;
- An interview on the Waterstones’ YouTube channel;
- A narrative by the author on the MacArthur Foundation YouTube channel;
- An interview with Mary Laura Philpott on the NPT Arts Connection YouTube channel (but also check the blog “A Word on Words” going along with it, where you can find book suggestions from the author!).
I will end this review here on a note of attributing a full 5 out of 5 star rating to “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”, highly suggesting it to each and everyone. I can’t wait to hopefully soon read more novels by Ocean!
As mentioned above, here the rest of the quotes that I highlighted during the reading experience:
“I am writing to go back to the time, when you stared, horror-struck, at the taxidermy buck hung over the soda machine by the restrooms, its antlers shadowing your face. […] How it was not the grotesque mounting of a decapitated animal that shook you – but that the taxidermy embodied a death that won’t finish. A death that keeps dying as we walk past it to relieve ourselves.” (p. 3)
“I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence – I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.” (p. 4)
“You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How much of the world passes through the pupil and still holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even know there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty.” (p. 12)
“We were exchanging truths, I realized, which is to say, we were cutting one another.” (p. 133)
“Maybe we look into mirrors not merely to seek beauty, regardless how illusive, but to make sure, despite the facts, that we are still here.” (p. 138)
“I read that beauty has historically demanded replication. We make more of anything we find aesthetically pleasing, whether it’s a vase, a painting, a chalice, a poem. We reproduce it in order to keep it, extend it through space and time. To gaze at what pleases – a fresco, a peach-red mountain range, a boy, the mole on his jaw – is, in itself, replication – the image prolonged in the eye, making more of it, making it last. Staring into the mirror, I replicate myself into a future where I might not exist.” (p. 138-139)
“In a world myriad as ours, the gaze is a singular act: to look at something is to fill your whole life with it, if only briefly.” (p. 175)
“In minutes, I became more of myself. Which is to say the monstrous part of me got so large, so familiar, I could want it. I could kiss it.” (p. 176 – the main character explaining the feeling of doing a line of cocaine when he was 14)
“Through the lightless window of a street-level apartment, a man’s voice in Arabic. I recognized the word Allah. I knew it was a prayer by the tone he used to lift it, as if the tongue was the smallest arm from which a word like that could be offered.” (p. 177)
“[…] I don’t want my sadness to be othered from me just as I don’t want my happiness to be othered. They’re both mine. I made them, dammit. What if the elation I feel is not another ‘bi-polar episode’ but something I fought hard for?” (p. 181)
“It’s not fair that the word laughter is trapped inside slaughter.” (p. 187)
“Round the corner by the traffic light blinking yellow. Because that’s what the lights do in our town after midnight – they forget why they’re here.” (p. 189)
“Is that what art is? To be touched thinking what we feel is ours when, in the end, it was someone else, in longing, who finds us?” (p. 189)
“A page, turning, is a wing lifted with no twin, and therefore no flight. And yet we are moved.” (p. 190)
“The rules, like streets, can only take you to known places. Underneath the grid as a field – it was always there – where to be lost is never to be wrong, but simply more.” (p. 192)
“Above it, a handful of straggling stars were biting through the sky’s milky haze.” (p. 206)
“Then his eyelashes. You could hear them think.” (p. 238)
“Do you remember the happiest day of your life? What about the saddest? Do you ever wonder if sadness and happiness can be combined, to make a deep purple feeling, not good, not bad, but remarkable simply because you didn’t have to live on one side or the other?” (p. 122)
“We rode home, the streetlights here and there above us. That was a purple day – neither good nor bad, but something we passed through.” (p. 124)