Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous outshines anything else on my reading list. In fact, I would go so far as to say it outshines anything else on anyone else’s reading list. In whatever genre. Forget genres. Here is something new.
Vietnamese and from a refugee family which immigrated to the US when he was two years old, the poet burst out of his allotted lowly refugee status and on to the literary scene with a T.S. Eliot prize winning poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry, 2017) On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel.
I do not know what there is to say about this book. Next to Vuong’s poetry and prose any routine use of language that I might come up with would instantly collapse under the weight of its own inadequacy.
On Earth takes the form of a letter to Vuong’s mother who was violent towards him and who married a man who was imprisoned for violence towards her. In short Vuong grew up surrounded by violence, whether or the domestic or other kind, in Hartford,Connecticut
…where we made a kind of life digging in and out of one brutal winter after another, where nor’easters swallowed our cars overnight. The two a.m. gunshots, the two p.m. gunshots, the wives and girlfriends at the C-Town checkout with black eyes and cut lips who return your gaze with lifted chins, as if to say mind your business
… where entire white families, the ones some call trailer trash, crammed themselves on half broken porches in mobile parks and HUD housing, their faces Oxy-Contin gaunt
Thank goodness the author does not mind his business. Thank goodness for his genius to humanise modern America, to bring the worlds of Saigon, Dunkin donuts, food stamps and nail bars crashing together as the voice of his lived experience. How Vuong skewers the appalling opioid scandal which has decimated the US and is making its way to the UK
“OxyContin, first mass-produced by Purdue Pharma in 1996 is an opioid, essentially making it heroin in pill form”.
If you find this a totally inadequate review, so do I. “Brilliant “shattering” “luminous” “a masterpiece” are some of the epithets I took from the publisher’s back cover. But I would say this. Ocean Vuong is a writer whose work will appear on exam syllabi into the future. This is a writer whose work will be studied, written about, lectured on, whose work will be the subject of dissertations and doctoral theses.
And still no-one will know how he did this.