Book Review by Marc Murr
Ostensibly, this poetic novel is written as a letter from the author to his mother. In reality, I think the author has written a letter to himself. Thus, in a more complicated way, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is of that literary genre that explores the theme of initiation. That is, how we all become – grow into – the people we are. Like Mark Twain with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ocean Vuong takes the reader on his own path of maturation, confronting along the way troubling issues of our time. Unlike Sawyer’s presentation as easy reading narrative in the third person, Vuong has created a poetic masterpiece that is dense with literary devices and trenchant observation about who he is – and, therefore, who each of us is. In fact, Vuong has written one chapter entirely in verse.
Tracking from his birth to a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier father, Quong’s journey through a turbulent youth in Hartford, Connecticut, detours back two generations to his grandmother’s and mother’s experiences in Viet Nam. Through his Grandfather Paul, an American GI, Vuong touches on the poignancy of love, and marriage many times, of those seemingly brief relationships during the Viet Nam war, but also of their enduring consequences for, like Vuong, their progeny. So, for the reader, how unusual to hear from the immigrant’s perspective that “color,” which is an extended metaphor through the novel, implies something negative in this country, when, for Quong, it had meant happiness. “And because I was six, I remember believing color was a kind of happiness.” But, “[w]hen we arrived in America in 1990, color was one of the first things we knew nothing about…[T]he rules of color, and with it our faces, had changed.” Black, yellow, red, white, and brown faces all connote something, and thus Quong examines the challenges of this new social structure and its effects on the individual.
And, through irony, Quong the Poet redeems Quong the autobiographical Novelist’s negative experience with color. Back in Saigon to return his deceased Grandmother’s ashes to her birth land, he comes upon a garish, though traditional, funeral service on a city street late at night. Officiating the service for the dead, singers perform in sequined outfits and “primary colors sparkled so intensely it seemed they were donning the very reduction of the stars.” Stars for Quong symbolize divinity. These ministers were men dressed in drag: color, beauty, divinity fuse and present in surprising ways. So, Quong confronts everyone’s typical trials: rejection, love, hate, sickness, addiction, prejudice, sex, war, politics, and death. His poetic treatment of them with piercing observations redeems their threat, and shows how to grow.
Through the plot of the novel, the reader empathizes and sympathizes with the brutal life Quong and his family endure. But, that’s not the point. The poet’s point is that Quong, born in the “epicenter” of war, like his Grandmother Lan learned to claim beauty “and made that beauty into something worth keeping.” Quong completes his initiation: “[a]ll this time I told myself we were born from war – but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty.” But, if we are beautiful or “gorgeous,” that is we properly realize that internally, why only “briefly”? What does that mean?
Quong the Novelist presents the reader with a number of the most fundamental questions whose answers are key to being initiated into lives of meaning and harmony. Quong the Poet offers stunning symbols and metaphors to suggest answers – far too many and too meaningful to explore in this limited space. Oddly, and honestly, Quong remarks that his writing is a “mess,” and on another occasion “I don’t know what I am saying…I don’t know what or who we are.” Quong is not completely correct: this poetic novel unfolds just as life really does, and life is not always organized or clear. Like Huck on the Mississippi, Quong confronts the river of life with all its unpredictability. Moreover, what he gives the reader through wise examination and observation are tools to find a self that is briefly gorgeous. In conclusion, Quong assures the reader that we have freedom to make the most of this process: “I run thinking I will outpace it all, my will to change being stronger than my fear of living.” Again, there is redemption, and it comes from Quong’s mother, to whom the letter is ostensibly written and who cannot read, who laughs after she tells him the secret to her – and, therefore, his – remarkable survival.
Marc Murr is co-manager of the Book Nook & Java Shop. Watch Bryan Uecker on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, September 3. Join the book club at 6pm the first Wednesday of the month at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.