“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” by Ocean Vuong, has been on the top of my TBR list for quite some time for trivial reasons: mainly for the beautiful cover and the Instagram hype. I was not familiar with the author’s name and did little research before opening to the first page; I was just so excited to find a copy at my favorite secondhand bookstore that I pushed all other newly purchased paperbacks aside, dove in as soon as I returned home.
I quickly realized two things about this book: It’s a memoir, but unconventionally so, and Ocean is a picture painter: This man has true talent in the way that he crafts his sentences. I found myself taking photos of pages because paragraph after paragraph represented sheer artistry: Many musings prompted me to pause, smile, shake my head in appreciation and wonder.
“Outside, the hummingbird’s whirring sounds almost like human breath. Its beak jabs into the pool of sugared water at the feeder’s base. What a terrible life, I think now, to have to move so fast just to stay in one place.” (Page 64)
“Remember: The rules, like streets, can only take you to known places. Underneath the grid is a field- it was always there- where to be lost is never to be wrong, but simply more. As a rule, be more.” (Page 185)
Beyond the eloquent prose, the storyline was quite interesting as well. Ocean “Little Dog” Voung grew up in Hartford, Connecticut with his mother and grandmother, two Vietnamese immigrants who tried their best to fit into the world around them. Life was not easy, and they relied on their strength, on each other, to get by.
But Little Dog saw things a little differently, and wrote this book as a letter to his mother, in effort to explain how life in fact really was. Knowing that she was illiterate assisted him in bearing the secrets of his soul.
This book was immediately relatable for me because I also grew up in Connecticut- several of my family members still reside in Hartford and I could visualize Ocean’s depictions, down to the street names. My great grandparents were immigrants from Italy and settled in both Hartford and New Britain; I know all about the landmarks Ocean discussed from the markets to the rundown neighborhoods to the highway overpasses. My grandmother was a single mom of three and my mother, her siblings grew up in the projects. We now experience Hartford from a different perspective, attending shows at the Bushnell, happy hours in the Center, and holidays on my Uncle’s elite historic Victorian home-lined street. This book resonated with me because Ocean walked me through the underbelly of Hartford’s past and present, lifted the rose-colored cloud to reveal some of the realities that still exist.
Life wasn’t easy, but Ocean named the hardships for his mother, who simply lived in each moment, head nearly underwater yet determined to paint a better picture for her only son. He named trauma, illness, shattered families and unconventional but solid ones. He named love in its many forms, as well as hate, abuse… defeat and resilience.
Ocean’s retelling was utterly poignant; If I could summarize the tone of the book, I’d use two simple words: Brave poetry. Ocean revealed the secrets of his heart, from his inability to fit in, to his awareness and acceptance of being gay, to living and understanding the two women in his life who knew so much, yet to little.
FINAL SCORE: N/A I don’t like to rate books that recount very personal, detailed aspects of one’s life: It is a truly noble, courageous thing to put personal matters to paper, to expose perspectives behind the persona and accept all that comes with the retelling, whether it be internal repercussions or worldly scrutiny. That openness to vulnerability deserves praise, regardless of the content presented.
With that said, I didn’t exactly close the book and revel in its mastery. I had to sort out my thoughts surrounding all that I consumed, what I loved, and what was lacking. (And if that was deliberately so.)
Ocean is an incredible wordsmith- I cannot deny that. His prose are eloquent and some depictions are utterly exquisite. But the storyline was sporadic at times and led to a lukewarm experience- I didn’t feel like there was a beginning, middle, and end.
I also am not sure that I would recommend this book to everyone. Ocean walks through a lot of thematic issues- drug use and overdose, death, violence, etc. and I don’t know if all of my book tribe members would be able to move through that. Now that I know what Ocean’s writing style is, I personally think that I could read more from him. But I will be selective in who I recommend this particular read to, not sure what his other novels are like.
BEST FOR: Seasoned, open-minded readers. This novel has a nonlinear structure and will be treasured by those who know how to read and appreciate more complex landscapes.
NOT GOOD FOR: Like mentioned above, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is not an easy read for a few reasons: The vernacular is not concise but is a complex, brilliant but fragmented stream-of- consciousness, does not follow your typical literary timeline of beginning, middle, and end. Rather, it is an intimate letter to someone else, where the reader hears not only what is written down, but what thoughts race through the mind while in reflection.
IF THIS BOOK/ AUTHOR WAS A HIGH SCHOOL STEREOTYPE/ SUPERLATIVE: Ocean would be voted, “Class Creative,” “Most Introspective,” or “Most Sincere.” His heart bleeds in the best way, his soul is connected to the page, hovers over his words so that readers not only breathe in his lyrics, but feel goosebumps.
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