by Jonathan Carr
        In “On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong, Little Dog, a Vietnamese American man, writes to his illiterate mother. The story covers their history together and the impact it has had on his life, growing up in Hartford, Connecticut. 
“On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous” takes the seemingly uninteresting life of Little Dog and makes it compelling and emotionally powerful through his unique narration. Vuong’s storytelling flows with the waves of heartbreak, emotional confusion, sexuality, and acceptance of the past that all come crashing onto the pages, much like the author’s first name. Little Dog’s relationships with others keep the story alive and reveal their effect on his life.
    The most important relationship involves him and his mother. It is complex, yet the brighter moments give light to both the story s and the reader’s heart. Little Dog writes “You’re a mother ma, but you’re also a monster. But so am I, and that’s why I can’t get away from you.” In a few sentences, he confesses his strained love for his mother, acknowledging that without her, he would not be who he is. Little Dog’s interactions with his mother, his family, his love interest, and others, place him in the part of both an observer, and a participant. An example being when he learned to speak English on behalf of his mother, after witnessing her struggle to buy groceries in her native tongue. Little Dog is presented as a curious and thoughtful person growing up slowly in a fast-paced country, hearing the lives of those around him, and relying on his letters to describe how he really thinks and feels. A good comparison of this character is John, the protagonist of Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. Both were involved in their families’ lives, but mostly to tell their stories and the impact they had on the narrators.

     The story is a mix of curiosity, tragedy, fate, and endearment, not only shown through Little Dog, but also through the life of his mother, his grandmother, his love interest, and the people he tells stories about. His mother is a hard-working immigrant from Vietnam, struggling to stay on her feet while raising a child in America. Because of this, she has many sides to her: loving while harsh, energetic while exhausted, hopeful while crestfallen. 

    Being unable to speak good English, let alone read, Little Dog’s mother had failed to adapt to the culture. This leaves her vulnerable and challenges her to give 110% in her everyday life, fearing her son will face an even harsher fate. Ultimately, she loves her son and her family, but that love is complicated by the traumas, physical exhaustion, and imperfection in herself that lead to us wishing the best for her throughout the story.

     It is worth noting this is Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, as he previously wrote poetry. Every paragraph demonstrates a passionate understanding of imagery and language that make the narrative stand out from standard fiction. While some readers of both poetry and fiction may enjoy this, some who prefer fiction may find a lot of the language to be overly romanticized. Vuong’s language would need to be more accessible should he hope to attract a wider audience in future fiction endeavors. 

     Sometimes, the narrative would tell stories that felt irrelevant to the main plot. When Little Dog is discussing a Vietnamese soldier and his relationship with Tiger Woods’ father, and how the golfer got his famous nickname. It made me wonder if the stories were really necessary to include and where Vuong was really going with this. 
On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a passionate and heartfelt tale of immigrant life in America, mixing familial and romantic love with every emotion that complicates it. But, when that same love endures, it becomes all the more beautiful. 

Read Issue 18