By Ocean Vuong
Let’s start with the now pro-forma caveat that I can be a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to novels, and in addition to being a curmudgeon, I attempted to read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous after several very stressful weeks of work and of life. So, if you wanted to take my rating of 1.5 with a few grains of salt, I would emphatically not hold it against you. Hell, I might even look up to you for it.
That concludes the friendly and loving portion of this assessment.
Let’s move on to why I picked up the novel in the first place: in the course of reading over a two week period, two writers who seemed pretty fucking smart raved about Vuong in general, and this novel in particular. I don’t remember who the writers were, I just remember they were pretty fucking smart.
Now let’s move on to what are known in some quarters as the key take-aways.
Prior to attempting to read On Earth, I apparently had a hierarchy of literary sins of which I was only partially aware. What I discovered very quickly as I tucked into this novel is that, for me, pretentiousness is at or near the pinnacle of literary abuses.
Pretentiousness is not the only fault I found in On Earth — it also suffered from melodrama issues — but it was the pretentiousness that got me riled up enough to put the book down after 15 pages.
“How pretentious was it? Can you cite any examples?”
Those are great questions. And yes, I can cite examples.
Maybe the first passage had more of a melodrama problem than a pretense problem.
As context, the novel takes the form of a letter a son writes to his physically abusive mother, who is a Vietnamese immigrant suffering from PTSD due to the war in Vietnam.
“The time with the kitchen knife — the one you picked up, then put down, shaking, saying quietly, “Get out. Get out.” And I ran out the door, down the black summer streets. I ran until I forgot I was ten, until my heartbeat was all I could hear of myself.”
That sounds like a parody of a Cure song. And why were the summer streets “black”?
This next passage was the final straw. Again a bit of context: the novel made several references to the migration of monarch butterflies. That’s what the “fly south” bit refers to.
“If we are lucky, something is passed on, another alphabet written in the blood, sinew, and neuron; ancestors charging their kin with the silent propulsion to fly south, to turn toward the place in the narrative no one was meant to outlast.”
Considering that passage again, maybe it’s just muddled rather than pretentious. Do butterflies have sinews?
It’s possible that the novel gathers steam as the story unfolds. There was also a nice bit of black comedy, when the mother, a manicurist, empathizes with a customer who is bemoaning the loss of her daughter to cancer, but it turns out the “daughter” was a horse.
These are my thoughts. I have been sharing them, but now am done. Ahead of me I have the oblivion of sleep.
I bid you good night.