FICTION: THE POETRY OF A LIFE

October 20, 2019

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The publication of Vietnamese-American Ocean Vuong’s fiction debut, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, was not unlike a literary event in itself. A young, talented and accomplished poet wrote a novel — a literary form that is more marketable and palatable to a larger reading audience — and soon it became a bestseller, not unaided by generous blurbs from established writers and a hefty publicity campaign. Hence, it is a relief to see that the buzz was not all hoopla, and that the searing raw talent encountered in Vuong’s equally auspicious poetry debut — Night Sky with Exit Wounds — is on display in this book, too, however fleetingly.

In a way, Vuong’s novel is a valedictory appendage of its predecessor — not just in terms of themes and style, but also in terms of subject matter. In fact, the novel takes its name from one of the poems in his collection. Vuong’s poetry is about the American war in Vietnam, and the transmission of collected traumas over several generations. He also writes about the war within the family, within the body, about violence and beauty, and the irony that the two might be the same thing. In one of his poems, he writes of his grandmother who married an American Marine, “An American soldier [f*****] a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me./ Yikes.”

This line from his poem is, simply put, the premise of Vuong’s novel. The narrator, Little Dog — who resembles Vuong himself in more ways than one — and his family flees Saigon amidst the war. He lives in Connecticut, goes to college in Brooklyn, and is, finally, a young writer with moderate success. In this book, Vuong uses the art of memory to make sense of a past that is haunted by war, a past rife with the pain of being a refugee, poor and queer.

A debut novel from a celebrated poet shows glimpses of the gorgeous and original imagery and the elliptical and supple wordplay of his poetry

In a fragmented narrative, the first half of this epistolary novel delineates the lives of Little Dog’s sometimes loving, often violent mother Rose, and his quasi-wise, mentally ill grandmother, Lan. He writes of their life — one that he scarcely remembers — in Vietnam, and of the life they have built together in Hartford, Connecticut. However, the change in geography is no guarantee of safety. The smell of gunpowder, or its memory at least, is pervasive.

Sudden sounds can send the family looking for shelter, guarding their ears with their hands. Their life together is symbiotic, the fraught relationships that can be poisonous are also the antidote. In one scene, the grandma “rolls a freshly boiled egg over the boy’s face where … the mother had flung an empty ceramic teapot that exploded on the boy’s cheek.” But to reduce Little Dog’s life with his mother to just the violence is to underestimate the complexity of their relationship — after all, the framing device of Vuong’s book is a letter addressed from Little Dog to his mother. In a way, it is reminiscent of the claustrophobically intimate mother-daughter relationship in Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher — at once too violent and too protective, disturbingly loving and malicious at the same time. But Rose wants to protect Little Dog from the feral outside world, to prepare him for the viciousness of the world that perceives him as too alien, too feminine.

Midway through the novel, Little Dog finds respite from daily iterations of isolation, bullying and abuse as he takes his first autonomous step in life and finds a summer job on a tobacco farm outside the city. There he meets Trevor, the rugged and drug-addicted grandson of the farm owner, and the boy “from whom I learned there was something even more brutal and total than work — want.”

Trevor is a rough, white boy, no different from Little Dog’s bullies, with guns for toys and a truck that he crashes everywhere while inebriated. What blossoms between the two boys is ardent and tender, but presciently doomed, not in the least because of Trevor’s inner conflicts vis-à-vis his sexuality. What saves Vuong’s depiction of the two boys exploring their bodies and its desires from fermenting into a gimmicky tale of teenage summer love, is his powerful exploration of the perniciousness of internalised homophobia and the constraints of white American masculinity.

The narrative reaches its propulsive and emotional zenith in this section. Here, Little Dog is “being f***** up, at last, by choice,” and in doing so he realises the power in giving, in submitting. Here, finally, too, he realises that he is beautiful, worthy of love. After making love to Trevor, he looks at himself in the mirror and is surprised. “It was an accident, my beauty revealed to me,” he says. Vuong’s writing in this section soars. He captures queer desire, its dynamics of vulnerability and strength, with a visceral honesty. The details of Little Dog and Trevor’s lovemaking are frank and meticulous and evoke all the little moments of awkwardness, delight and raw hurt persuasively, and leave the reader ensnared, and eventually bereft, as the lovers’ affair reaches its unexpected, heart-breaking and utterly shattering conclusion.

In the sections that expose the reader to the inner lives of the characters, the writing is consistently good. The imagery is gorgeous and original, the prose elliptical and supple. I was grateful to find traces of Vuong the poet within these pages and, indeed, some of the lines in these sections possess the tensile precision of his poems: at five years old, Little Dog wonders if his mother tongue is “not a mother at all — but an orphan”, his shoes with lights are “the world’s fastest ambulances, going nowhere.” When he has grown up, Little Dog ruminates that the comma “resembles a foetus — that curve of continuation.”

These sections, however, are interspersed with wilfully lapidary essayistic meditations on an array of subjects. Vuong touches upon the power dynamics of class and race in nail salons, drug use, homophobic violence, the use of the lexicon of destruction to appreciate art. There is also a section on French philosopher Roland Barthes and one on American golfer Tiger Woods’s racial heritage, which took me back to Jamaican-American poet Claudia Rankine’s incendiary discussion of American tennis player Serena Williams in Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric. These sections, written in a completely different register from the prose-song quality of the others, inhibit the flow of the narrative and render the potency of Little Dog’s story insipid. They read as narrative asides, as tendentious explanations of the events occurring in the protagonist’s life.

One reason why there is so much of this essayistic material in this book is because Vuong’s novel started out as an essay for The New Yorker magazine and, given the reception and appeal of his previous book, there must have been great enthusiasm to publish his first novel. Taken together, and collected separately, these sections may even form an extraordinary collection of short essays or aphorisms, but scattered within the novel they can seem a bit jarring and portentous.

The beauty of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is in the small details, in the smells and tastes and sounds captured with photographic clarity. It is when Vuong employs the linguistic pyrotechnics of a poet and tests the ductility of words that the reader is fully immersed in the narrative. I found myself longing for sections about the inner lives of Little Dog and his mother; a world so small and made even smaller by the shifting first, second and third person voice so that the “you” in the book refers to Little Dog and his mother interchangeably, so much so that sometimes the two appear to be different aspects of the same person.

Vuong’s powerful and moving — if imperfect — first novel is a coming-of-age story, a coming out story and a coming through story. American poet Frank Bidart wrote in his beautiful poem, ‘Queer’, that “lie to yourself about this and you will forever lie about everything.” In this book, Vuong chooses to tell the truth and tells it lovingly and beautifully.

The reviewer is an MFA candidate in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

On Earth We’re Briefly
Gorgeous
By Ocean Vuong
Jonathan Cape, UK
ISBN: 978-1787331501
256pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 20th, 2019