Publisher: Penguin Press, 2019 Genre: Literary Fiction Pages: 256 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong, is written as a candid letter from Vietnamese immigrant Little Dog to his illiterate mother in which he recants his version of their family and his personal history. In the letter, he explores both his mother and grandmother’s experience as Vietnamese citizens during the American war, as well as their subsequent stories as immigrants in America. He also details his understanding of American culture and the ways in which it is embedded with violence, and he confesses the sordid affair of his first-love with OxyContin addicted Trevor. All the while, Little Dog tries to find his place in his family, in America, and in the world, while remaining both hopeful and grateful for the imperfect love in his life.
From the novel’s opening in which Little Dog evokes Chinse poet Bei Dao in comparing freedom to the distance between the hunter and its prey, I was sucked in by its emotional depth and expressive language. This book is as beautiful and vivid as it is honest and devastating. At times, the string of hope that runs throughout the novel gets so thin that it is barely visible, but in its own subtle way, it always seems to bubble back toward the surface. This makes for an emotionally tumultuous read that is well worth it.
What I believe makes this novel so important is the way in which it addresses the immigrant experience in America. All the while, it employs evocative language to show the power of communication—which is largely taken away from Little Dog’s mother and grandmother. Through the cruelty of assumption born of the lack of communication, the book shows the way in which we all want to belong, and how America represents a collective sense of belonging that Little Dog desperately wishes to be tethered to in order to feel more legitimate. This novel speaks to all of our experiences as immigrants, maybe not from country to country, but on smaller scale, such as moving to a new school or starting a new job; it relates those experiences back into a basic shared human desire to belong.
Another interesting aspect of this novel is the way in which Vuong’s background in poetry influences the form of the novel. The letter Little Dog is writing to his mother is written in a series of vignettes that allow the reader to explore his memories in a way that feels unseated in time. At the same time, the distance between the narrator and the story he is telling is constantly fluctuating. In one scene, that lasts less than four pages, Little Dog imagines his mother taking the long walk home from work. In quick secession the reader learns about some of the layout of Hartford, Connecticut, Little Dog’s job and supervisor at the Boston Market, the origins of Trevor’s addiction to OxyContin, and Little Dog’s Grandmother’s memory of a girl killed in Vietnam while wearing sandals made of the burned rubber of a tire. Through all of this, Little Dog never forgets to return to speak directly to his mother to orient her both emotionally and on the streets that he imagines her traversing. I have to praise Vuong for his ability to make each word and each sentence have so much impact. It is a stunning feature of this novel and one that is likely to keep you hooked throughout its entirety.
At its core, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a novel that strives to both accept and celebrate the ways in which love enters our lives. Love, like all things, is imperfect, but that does not mean that we should not cherish it all the same. It is a vibrantly written emotional experience that will stick with you long after you have read the last page. It makes my required reading list for life, and I cannot recommend this book enough.
From Memorial Day to Independence Day to Labor Day and everywhere in between, summer is the perfect time for fiction that explores what it means to be American! While it’s great to return to classics such as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Howard Fast’s April Morning, and Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, not every American origin story centers on a white man in wartime. Here are six powerful classics that reflect the scope of our country’s diversity, showing the value of the past and the determination towards the future that unites Americans regardless of time period or background.
Amy Tan’s masterful The Joy Luck Club is a classic fiction novel that provides a realistic portrayal of American families. Beginning in China and continuing in San Francisco, the Joy Luck Club meets weekly to play mahjong. When its founder, Suyuan, passes away in the 1950s, her daughter Jing-mei is confronted with the truth about her mother’s complicated past. Jing-mei’s feelings of inadequacy in telling her mother’s story are echoed by the other daughters of the club members, as being raised in America gave them markedly distinct experiences than that of their mothers. Told in a series of linked shorter accounts, the book gives us a glimpse into the cultural and generational conflicts with immigrant mothers and American-raised daughters. This novel offers a powerful definition of being American: how—instead of abandoning of the past—the American spirit is strengthened by retaining cultural heritage while still moving forward.
Mexican-American Esperanza may only be twelve years old, but that does not keep her from having big dreams and being determined to leave her family’s poverty in the past. As she matures and undergoes traumatic experiences throughout the year, Esperanza’s story provides a real, raw look into the racial segregation, financial difficulties, and physical challenges that many Americans on the fringe experienced in the late 1950s, just as Esperanza did where she lived in a poor Chicago neighborhood. Esperanza’s learning to balance cultural heritage and personal progression to help others exemplifies a critical dichotomy in true Americanism.
Octavia Butler’s Kindred follows Dana, a 26-year-old black woman in California in 1976, and her literal connections with her past as she interacts with her ancestors in slavery in the early 1800s in Maryland. She makes difficult choices and experiences the atrocities of slavery in a personal way, made more poignant by comparison to her white husband’s treatment. Dana’s cross-century experiences of taking control of her life in the face of misogyny and racism prove the persistence of the past in the attitudes of the present, providing a vivid perspective on these periods in American history that is often overlooked.
Jim Burden reminisces on his experiences with his childhood friend, Ántonia Shimerda, who came with her Bohemian immigrant family to Nebraska in the 1880s. From teaching her English as children to visiting her with her own children decades later, Jim’s account of Ántonia’s life, especially in comparison to his own, does credit to both the lifelong friends. Ántonia’s actions throughout demonstrate her remarkable tenacity of spirit with the balance of remembering history while moving forward. Willa Cather’s masterpiece, My Ántonia, shows how—even with all the complications of her past experiences—Ántonia fully and truly embodies American values.
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man begins and ends with the unnamed narrator hiding from the world underground saying he is invisible. Pondering Louis Armstrong’s lyrical question, “What did I do to be so black and blue?”, the African-American narrator tells the story of his life, from youth to college to employment centered in 1930s Harlem, where he continually experienced the invisibility that resulted from others’ conscious choices not to see him. This bitterly reflective classic points out that keeping the American spirit moving forward should not come at the expense of forgetting the more complicated parts of our past or ignoring the reminders of those circumstances that surround us.
And finally, perhaps the most classic of the list—Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, with its famous heroine Scarlett O’Hara in 1861 Georgia before, during, and after the Civil War. Scarlett is not at all the typical protagonist for a Civil War novel, nor is she the typical Southern Belle. With her quick thinking and perseverance, Scarlett never gives up despite all the challenges she encounters, and to the less-than-happy end she retains her determination, representing the true American spirit.