May 31 marks the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth, and the best present we could possibly receive is Ocean Vuong’s debut novel ... with his radical approach to form and his daring mix of personal reflection, historical recollection and sexual exploration, Vuong is surely a literary descendant of the author of Leaves of Grass. Emerging from the most marginalized circumstances, he has produced a lyrical work of self-discovery that’s shockingly intimate and insistently universal ... this narrative flows—rushing from one anecdote to another, swirling past and present, constantly swelling with poignancy ... At times, the tension between Little Dog’s passion and his concern seems to explode the very structure of traditional narrative, and the pages break apart into the lines of an evocative prose poem—not so much briefly gorgeous as permanently stunning ... Kindness and wisdom, always flickering through these pages, begin to accrue more thickly. The healing that finally arrives is fraught with pain and paradox, but no less welcome and remarkable.
The poems from his book Night Sky With Exit Wounds expose raw hurt, love and joy, and in performing them, he demonstrated the confidence required to reveal himself. Vuong does the same in his compelling, emotional first novel ... Vuong as a writer is daring. He goes where the hurt is, creating a novel saturated with yearning and ache. Little Dog is turned inside out by his search for validation, and Vuong imbues his quest with meaning that extends beyond the personal ... Vuong refuses to be embarrassed. He transforms the emotional, the visceral, the individual into the political in an unforgettable–indeed, gorgeous–novel, a book that seeks to affect its readers as profoundly as Little Dog is affected, not only by his lover but also by the person who brought him into the world[.]
Vuong uses language to conjure wholeness from a situation that language has already broken, and will continue to break; loss and survival are always twinned ... The structural hallmarks of Vuong’s poetry—his skill with elision, juxtaposition, and sequencing—shape the novel ... Success as a writer is the mostly unspoken end point of Little Dog’s story: readers who know Vuong’s biography will assume it, and those who don’t will infer it from the strength of the book’s language ... Reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous can feel like watching an act of endurance art, or a slow, strange piece of magic in which bones become sonatas, to borrow one of Vuong’s metaphors ... Like the Beijing-born novelist Yiyun Li, Vuong has a fondness for the sort of wordplay that involves noticing odd accidents in the language that he had to consciously learn ... Lines like these risk preciousness, but Vuong’s earnestness is overpowering ... In the context of those conferences, Vuong’s story seems extraordinary. But, while Vuong himself is exceptional, much of his experience is not unusual.
The novel is expansive and introspective, fragmented and dreamlike, a coming of age tale conveyed in images and anecdotes and explorations ... Just as he fuels his prose with his poetry, Vuong takes what he needs from lived experience to animate his storytelling with visceral beauty and a strain of what feels like uncut truth. This is, of course, a difficult art, and one of the chief goals of many fiction writers ... Vuong’s prose is strongest when it’s anchored to Little Dog and his family, or his relationship with his first love ... There are moments when the writing slips, becoming clumsy or cloying — just a tiny bit LiveJournal emo ... It’s impressive, though, that this doesn’t happen more often. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a book of sustained beauty and lyricism, earnest and relentless, a series of high notes that trembles exquisitely almost without break ... For the duration of this marvelous novel, Vuong holds our gaze and fills it with what he wills.
... [a[ devastatingly beautiful first novel, as evocative as its title...painful but extraordinary...should seal his literary stature. I had to read this book in small doses, absorbing its blows a little at a time — not because the often elliptical, poetic language is difficult, but because the subject matter is so shattering ... While this coming-out story, which dominates the middle section of the book, is a tale of a desired kind of obliteration, the final section addresses a more total annihilation ... Vuong's language soars as he writes of beauty, survival, and freedom ... The title says it: Gorgeous.
There are passages in the novel of real beauty and originality. Vuong writes wonderfully about work ... The novel’s strength lies in its specifics, so exactly seen or smelled or tasted ... Vuong is at his best pressing the words further and harder...in his effort to capture in their net the fleeting sensations of a real moment, make on his page the illusion of life. His frankness and precision, writing about Little Dog’s lovemaking with Trevor, is persuasive and moving, as is the unsparing description of grandmother Lin’s death. It’s more problematic when the flow of the story is freighted with too much of a different kind of writing: an explicit commentary on the meaning of what’s happening, or a sort of choric lyrical lamenting between scenes. Part of the problem may come with the framing device: because the novel is addressed to Rose, who can’t read it, it’s aimed too much rhetorically at the unresponsive air – which can’t talk back, or yawn or laugh, as one suspects Rose might. Tonally there’s a habitual recourse to plangency, to a dying fall ... too much prose in this register inhibits the flow, dilutes the story’s power to persuade us. The passionate politics of this book are most alive whenever we’re most lost inside the experiences of his protagonists.
Vuong is a mightily gifted observer ... Some lines have the almost hallucinatory exactness of his best poems ... Vuong’s writing about nail salons, and the way mothers raised their children in them, is moving and rarely less than excellent. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is, at the same time, filled with showy, affected writing, with forced catharses and swollen quasi-profundities. There are enough of these that this novel’s keel can lodge in the mud ... 'Deep Purple Feeling' could be an alternative title for certain swaths of this novel ... The strongest parts of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, where this novel picks up genuine force and has some of the mournful resonance of the Bruce Springsteen song 'The River,' arrive in its second half. This is where the narrator details his doomed love affair with Trevor, a boy he meets while both work in the tobacco fields ... Vuong’s novel is a mixed success, a book of highs and lows. At its best, it’s unleashed in every regard.
...it’s an experimental, highly poetic novel, and therefore difficult to describe ... Vuong is masterly at creating indelible, impressionistic images ... although the book’s break into poetic form is perhaps designed to suggest that there are some expressions only poetry can communicate, at times the stylistic switches can feel like adornments on a powerful story that never required dressing up ... Vuong beautifully evokes this boy’s seductive power over Little Dog: This is some of the most moving writing I’ve read about two boys experimenting together (and reader, I’ve read a lot). The sex here is good because it feels honest, messy, joyous, awkward, painful ... The tenderness of the prose feels like a triumph against a world hellbent on embittering the tenderhearted ... the book is brilliant in the way it pays attention not to what our thoughts make us feel, but to what our feelings make us think. To what kinds of truth does feeling lead?
An aura of tragic futility...haunts every sentence, made all the more real because we know, further, that Vuong’s real-life mother—the dedicatee of the book—will never read it. Our sense of language as a means of communication and intimacy is overturned by this spectacle of language as a means of division and distance ... This tension courses through the book, between language that alienates and discomfits a queer refugee in a poor, unlettered family, and language as something that stabilizes and centers a successful writer ... This salvation in language is the only real end-point in a typically plotless novel, which doesn’t follow the conventional logic of event, instead portraying autobiographical vignettes in seemingly random order—I’m sure they’re not random, but there’s the sensation of driftless recollection, like a photo album, haphazardly assembled and reshuffled. You can read it like an album, flicking back and forth through memory. But even that metaphor doesn’t do the novel’s fragmented texture justice ... the fragments do culminate in a kind of unity, that of a writer’s consciousness establishing itself, its center ... The trouble with language being Vuong’s terra firma is that when he traipses off this little plot of land, his writing is less successful. Boring facts about the licensing history of the painkiller OxyContin ensue. So do naïve political affirmations...and naïve personal affirmations...But the price of intimacy is often banality. It’s worth it to observe Little Dog’s family life, and the impact, decades hence, of the Vietnam War on families, about which Vuong definitely isn’t naïve ... There’s much misery here, but such delicate language turns trauma into a triumph.
[Vuong's] words are liquid, flowing, rolling, teasing, mighty and overpowering. When Vuong's mother gave him the oh-so-apt name of Ocean, she inadvertently called into being a writer whose language some of us readers could happily drown in ... Like so many immigrant writers before him, Vuong has taken the English he acquired with difficulty and not only made it his own—he's made it better.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous doesn’t read like fiction—or, more accurately, what we think we know to be fiction. It’s lyrically fragmented: the rubble of an entire life, exploded, then delicately pieced back together on the page ... It’s a searching book, particularly when it comes to matters of the heart ... It is transporting, mysterious, wise ... Vuong’s experiment isn’t perfect—lovely prose can take a turn toward the affected—but he proves to be a remarkable storyteller. Little Dog’s grandmother Lan comes to life in the most disturbing, visceral, bizarrely poignant Vietnam War story I’ve ever read. Depictions of poverty, queerness, and the immigrant experience are vivid, exacting, and humane. Same goes for On Earth as a whole. This book is no ordinary novel. This thing feels alive.
... the devastating terrain of Ocean Vuong’s debut novel...charts the violence and beauty that follows from human connection with startling empathy ... In its finest moments, Vuong’s prose features the sort of tender, aphoristic flourishes and sense of lived experience contained in the work of James Baldwin ... Vuong’s debut novel offers an extended exploration...which, while painfully specific to Vuong and many other Vietnamese Americans, also embodies the ubiquitous violence enshrined in American life more generally. Scenes from the US occupation of Vietnam stand alongside thoughts on Tiger Woods, lyrics from 50 Cent, and descriptions of urban nail salons—the composite, enthralling in its congruence ... Little Dog’s mother lives in the clutches of PTSD, and Little Dog’s reflections on this trauma are trenchant ... As Vuong draws on the personal, so too does he pull from his poetic prowess, animating On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous with his gift for vivid precision ... As Vuong draws on the personal, so too does he pull from his poetic prowess, animating On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous with his gift for vivid precision ... Taken in isolation, some of Vuong’s sentences could feel affected or ornamental; one remarkable achievement of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, however, is how hard-earned these flourishes feel. This is a novel filled with myriad heartaches and Vuong, in not shying away from such depths, gives voice to the beauty that remains nonetheless ... In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong offers so much of himself and, in doing so, makes suffering feel, if not less senseless, then at least less lonesome. There’s nothing little about that.
To say On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is only a novel would diminish its essence and ambition. For it is also an epistle as well as epic poem, romance, elegy, family history, theory, and critical essay ... this work knows full well that nothing can exist without history or a past, knows full well that the way something is assembled is not 'alien from the impulse that created it.' Steeped in news and cultural references, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous makes time travel possible ... Emphasizing the flexibility of language and meaning, Vuong shows just how it can be used to walk towards and within imagination ... This work is a collective song—of Little Dog, of Rose, of Trevor, of Lan, of Little Dog’s father, of Vietnam, war, addiction, joy, survival, America. It is the song of what is left, alive, and beautiful ... Vuong writes with recognition that narratives of poverty, toxic masculinity, and trauma pervade and persevere ... The risks Vuong takes in this work are only risks because they insist on hope, and joy, and show a path towards healing through language and imagination. This book teaches us how and where we might begin.
...where I thought Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous most shines is in its depiction of Little Dog’s relationship to Trevor ... when Little Dog meets Trevor, a transformation occurs that changes the whole feel of the novel. Little Dog looks at himself in the mirror, seeing for the first time a body he can love. 'It was an accident, my beauty revealed to me,' he writes, 'I was day-dreaming, thinking about the day before, of Trevor and me behind the Chevy, and had stood in the tub with the water off for too long. By the time I stepped out, the boy before the mirror stunned me.' This felt to me the most wonderful moment in the novel: the sudden metamorphosis of the body, from an object of embarrassment seeking anonymity to something that reveals itself as worthy of desire ... On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is the novel I most looked forward to reading in 2019. The title is so provocative, the story so obviously compelling, and the author already famous for his craft, how could I not want to read it? ... As beautiful as the prose is throughout, however, the first third of this novel requires a lot of patience. The language is often figurative, slowing down the reading experience. At such moments, I wanted the narrator to speak more directly ... There’s nothing obvious about the beauty of Vuong’s novel...It is a beauty that asserts itself against vociferous claims to the contrary and demands a different way of looking and valuing what is seen.
Whatever you think a novel is or could be, it probably isn’t this, a riot of feeling and sensation ... On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is irreducible by such easy categorization. There is no diagrammable plot here, no villains, no clear conflict. Vuong is pushing the boundaries of the novel form, reshaping the definition to fit the contours of his restless poetic exploration, using language to capture consciousness and being. The text spasms with memory like synapses firing in the dark ... To read this book is to fill your whole life with it, albeit not briefly. Vuong’s is poetry that lingers in the blood long after the words have run out.
An epistolary novel has a tricky framework, but for Vuong, an award-winning poet, it’s a platform for extraordinary imagery, carefully parsed relationships and intense prose. He’s a writer with the patience and skill to develop a cast of complex characters ... a distinctive, intimate novel that is also a reckoning with the Vietnam War’s long shadow. His prose is direct and potent; sometimes, it has the elegance of an ancient proverb ... it’s unsurprising that Vuong’s debut novel is full of rich images ... Vuong is a skillful, daring writer, and his first novel is a powerful one.
Ocean Vuong’s debut novel...illuminates lives that at first glance might seem anything but gorgeous ... But in Vuong’s lyrical prose, beauty and pain are intertwined in the memories of the narrator ... Despite Little Dog’s sorrows, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is ultimately a celebration of the love, however flawed and fleeting, that threads all the characters’ lives together. The novel is a stunning debut.
It’s a soft thing, bitter and tender, bigger and more intimate than most novels imagine they can be. A quiet, resonant work that sings and hums and aches off the page, full of wisdom --- sprawling both the broad scope of the story and the gems of sentences, fragments, that crack the world open and reveal something fragrant, or rotting, but true ... Vuong’s award-winning poetic ear echoes through every phrase. His writing is clean and wretched at once, ruthlessly evocative of terrible, familiar things, the parts of history and present we pretend not to remember. Fresh, vulnerable and ceaseless, defiant of form, it blends poetry, fiction and what might be akin to memoir into something that could have become arcless but instead bends towards refrains, motifs, the absence of culmination. ... The work smolders off the page, graceful, and is both raw and careful at once. Vuong wields language deftly: as a vehicle through time, as the space between bodies, as a bridge spanning a wound. Yet he never forgets the presence of the wound. This is one of the best books I’ve read in my lifetime. A masterpiece.
...the UMass-Amherst professor’s poetic, experimental novel...bristles with feeling and demonstrates plenty of writing talent, as he places readers in a corner of urban America — Hartford, Conn., Vuong’s hometown — where almost all social contracts lie in tatters ...This is a novel propelled by the rhythms of its prose and the associative logic of its narrator’s memories rather than any plot machinations ... Vuong’s descriptive gifts can be impressive .... Elsewhere, an overly exuberant Vuong presses too hard ... Likewise Vuong’s observational about the nature of a difficult life at times could benefit from more restraint ... Vuong delivers an overall striking portrait of a boy growing up in a world in ruins, before making an escape from it that leaves him profoundly uneasy.
This is clearly the novel of a poet. Mr. Vuong has a talent for capturing slight details with unexpected words. The grandmother’s breath, for example, is a 'mix of Ricola cough drops and the meaty scent of sleep.' The inside of Trevor’s cheek, 'where the flesh was softest, tasted like cinnamon gum and wet stones.' He often uses animals to evoke our primal tendencies and the vulnerability of all life ... Yet Mr. Vuong’s lyricism often feels labored. His sentences are so bedecked with metaphors and analogies that there are moments when one might crave a little more restraint. His efforts to transform nearly every observation into something profound yields many overwritten lines ... This is a shame. The material is so good and original that more of it could speak for itself ... Still, one can understand why Mr. Vuong’s prose might feel so freighted with its own significance. The story he tells, of a gay Vietnamese refugee in a desolate, opioid-riddled American city who becomes not only the first literate member of his family but a writer himself, is his own story, and its kind is rarely told ... With this book, he is creating an account of lives that are at once overlooked and thoroughly American. These days, this feels like a political act.
We’re in the realm of autofiction here, with fictional imagination allowing the writer a distance from the strictly autobiographical material, the freedom to create around the literal past.In this blending of fact and fiction, Vuong is not only putting together a piece of literature, but a version of himself. Vuong approaches the material of his life in a series of feints and curves, elliptical insights and recurring motifs. There is no straightforward narrative line here, but a constantly shifting psychological, emotional and physical landscape ... Nothing is easy for Little Dog — or, one posits, for Vuong — and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous reflects that as it swirls and diverges, confronts hard truths and vicious moments alongside fleeting joys and glimpses of hope. It’s an inspiring, powerful reflection of a singular mind.
In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, [Vuong's] prose is richly poetic, and his references draw from a wide range of sources, from Roland Barthes to 50 Cent. The novel seems like part memoir, part epic poem, although at times the lyricism feels overly mannered and the associations strained ... Disarmingly frank, raw in subject matter but polished in style and language, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous reveals the strengths and limitations of human connection and the importance of speaking your truth.
Vuong eschews a typical novel plot and readers dip in and out of scenes that build into something like plot but more, unsurprisingly, like a poem. Indeed, Vuong shines the brightest when he writes this novel as if it were a poem in sections where there are line breaks, enjambments, and associative leaps ... At the same time, this is a first novel of a writer who is not yet used to the form. Though poetry gives a writer the opportunity to hone in on imagery and phrases until they shine—to look at an idea through various angles in quick succession—such techniques can cause a kind of fatigue in the novel, slow the pacing, and make the novelist seem unsure of his words. In particular, Vuong relies heavily on repeating himself ... Poetic language inserted into prose can sometimes, ironically, have the opposite effect, making for a monotonic and one-note read. The unsure novelist also shows up in scenes that feel forced and awkward, inserted as if to make a particular point only to disappear with effect or fanfare (a pitfall of an impressionistic novel: dots don’t always connect.) ... Vuong sees America. And it’s ugly and gritty and imperfect. It kills at home and abroad ... as Vuong teaches us: surviving, against all odds, is gorgeous.
Beware of any unmediated raves; don’t let them fool you into expecting a polished masterpiece. This is a poetic novel, formally and stylistically ambitious. There are going to be problems, and because Vuong is taking real creative risks, those problems, when they arise, are significant. As you might intuit from the title, one of Vuong’s modes is a high-stakes hyper-lyricism (think ee cummings and Emily Dickinson) that can teeter over into kitsch ... Vuong’s greatest weakness is his fondness for metaphors involving punctuation and syntax. Not only is it tiresome when writing repeatedly references the act of writing, it’s also an impoverished field of reference — there are only so many punctuation marks ... But the risk-taking works both ways, and the highs here are inversely proportional to the lows. There is a lot of good writing on the level of the sentence ... Vuong also employs an amazing vocal range that powers this nearly plotless novel, allowing for startling juxtapositions and feats of compression ... Most impressive is the treatment of abuse and mental illness ... Vuong’s determination to see well-trodden ground afresh, with unremitting complexity, is extremely rare ... There is a great deal to admire: that he was able to give such personal material novelistic treatment; that he had the patience to wait until that was possible; that he only had wait until he was 30. We should answer his patience with our own as we watch this exciting talent try things out on the page, sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong, but always striving to make it new.
[Vuong is] a rather amazing virtuoso ... both unique and endearing ... If I had any complaint, it would be that Little Dog’s mother, Rose, is rather flat and colorless in the retelling. Her only modes seem to be hard work, exhaustion and physical abuse of her son ... To call this a story is a bit of a stretch. There is no plot, no protagonist or antagonist, and no conflict-driven three-act structure to grasp the hero’s prize ... But what keeps the pages turning are the honest moments indelibly burned into the memory ... When I began the book, I wondered if I would be able to relate to the tale of a gay Vietnamese immigrant. But within a few pages, it became clear that the story of family and of discovering yourself as you come of age, is universal ... This immigrant’s life is as deeply an American story as George Washington’s truth-telling or Benjamin Franklin’s kite, but this one is much more expertly told.
As with any ambitious literary debut, there are moments of stylistic surfeit that readers with sensitive digestion may have trouble with. But [Vuong's] experiments with form—floating snippets of prose-poetry, song lyrics and disjointed dialogue—remain readable. He feels like a gentle fellow traveller rather than a lofty teacher, which is important, given the gravity and intimacy of his themes ... The bond between a hurt woman and son is at the heart of this story, which unfurls tender new layers right up to the last line. This impressive debut hints at even greater things to come.
It’s goddamn great ... As in canon. As in, we should all be reading this novel now, because it’s going to be a classic ... You know a novel is great when it gets stuck in your head like a song ... That’s the thing about Vuong’s novel, the sticky quality that makes the story latch on and take hold in your mind: it feels real, intimate as a conversation between close friends. Part of this realness comes from Vuong’s undeniable eye for detail ... And there’s also voice. Darting between lyricism and chattiness, Little Dog’s voice is like the voice so many writers I know, elegant and hilarious and utterly undeniable ... You know a novel is good when you forget it’s fiction. So much in Briefly Gorgeous possesses this feeling of rightness. Its take on the world today, the world that those of us in Vuong’s generation grew up in, is deeply, often painfully, accurate ... I feel evangelical. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous will hurt you, but it will also make you feel seen.
...you could say this is a poet’s novel, a bard’s work of fiction, but that misses one of the book’s underlying messages—that language is imperfect, fluid, and inconsistent, a malleable tool that will neither ever quite successfully expresses our joys and sorrows nor meets the idealized nature of its parameters. Regardless, Vuong harnesses the epistolary form to its full potential ... Each chapter illuminates the fragility of our working vocabulary and the weak common structures we rely on to make meaning ... Every bit of language is always ready to be flipped and reimagined, because it’s never been rigid or real at all. None of this struggle is easy to explain, but Vuong expertly dissects these moments of divergence and uses them to develop his characters.The novel’s more experimental elements, then, sometimes feel like a push to embrace the work’s own impermanence and ambiguity ... Little Dog’s introspections occasionally attempt to punch with a force beyond the limits of the novel’s structure. On the sentence level, there are a few too many haymakers, those bits of prose that really try to cut to the core. They can’t all be expected to land ... For all the talk of breaking boundaries, this is still a proper novel if you’re a genre stickler, but to limit On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous to a singular category is a disservice to a work that so clearly can be seen differently from every angle. Vuong’s novel—I’ll say it, I guess: like a poem—packs as much force in the spaces it leaves vacant, the areas where each word can be turned over. It awaits the reader who can see the new it offers every time it is picked up again...
Vuong sketches out the novel’s characters with a poet’s hand, capturing intimate conversations and moments through stunningly lyrical prose that grounds the book despite its non-linear narrative structure ... the book is first and foremost a love letter to language. Little Dog never takes his mastery of it for granted ... We are witnessing something necessary and powerful with On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which asks us to search what is human in us and ask what it really means to be alive, to seek truth within the mess that is life. For Vuong, the answer is clear: It is to love without fear, despite violence, through bonds created with words.
The story of Little Dog’s mother and grandmother occupies the first half of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is competently done, and has no connection whatsoever to the book’s second half, in which Little Dog falls in love with a boy named Trevor ... the two are quickly assaying each other in passages that shuttle between purple and beautiful like the pendulum of a metronome ... The drift of aimless yearning and pointed ecstasy in this story is beautifully done. Vuong steadily and subtly darkens the atmosphere between the two boys, so that even non-coital moments carry a charge of both poetry and pathos ... Had Vuong expanded his Trevor plot to full-book length and perhaps done a better job of grafting his mother’s story onto it, instead of simply plopping them down next to each other like condiment jars on a table, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous might have been that most elusive beast, a modern classic of gay fiction. As it is, when Little Dog tells his unlistening mother 'You asked me what it was like to be a writer and I’m giving you a mess,' readers might agree a bit too enthusiastically.
Those readers who are familiar with Vuong’s poetry will recognize in this book the same lyricism, the same skill in turning a beautiful and poignant phrase which renders many of Vuong’s pronouncements timeless, lending them the quality of adages and deeply-earned wisdom ... Occasionally, these lines can verge on being precious, or just on the right side of vague to seem meaningful...reductive or cloying ... This book asks how grief and trauma is transmitted. It also asks profound questions about the inheritance of language, and of silence. In some of the most moving passages, Vuong interplays dark humor and horror ... Vuong has a skilled eye for image, for the connections of theme, for turning his sections poetically by returning to an idea, changing the terms, offering a sort of volta in prose. He has a formidable mind for poignancy, and for telling detail. However, the skill here isn’t always for narrative on the larger scale, and the book is slow, and often samey, as a result. As compelled as a reader might be by the beauty of the language, or the political force and wisdom of Vuong’s insights, this is a novel that loses its voltage through repetition, with many of the better sentences or observations being dulled by the presence of so many similar ones throughout the book ... what it gives in hard-earned and careful thought, it lacks in compelling structure or focus. The committed reader will find much of value, but others may give up before they reach the end.
Vuong’s prismatic style can be disorienting, but it enables him to layer history within his characters ... Vuong is a poet of exceptional talent, yet that’s not quite enough to sustain this novel, which reads like an extended prose poem, with its tone and pacing unchanging throughout. (Sections have previously been published as stand-alone poems.) From a writer with such a striking ability to convey readers into the eternal present of his world, the novel often feels porous and searching, forgetting its debt to narrative. Still, moments of urgency break through. Vuong has been heralded for his insights into 'otherness,' but perhaps above all he is a keen anthropologist of the contemporary American experience.
... it’s possible that the faults that mar On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous for me will be outshone, for others, by the clarity and honesty of its vision, its powerful emotional payload and vivid imagery ... Some parts read like essays and may have started out like that...This material, written in a different register from the lyrical, dreamlike voice of the rest of the novel, doesn’t feel evenly woven into the story ... frequent changes of tone and an inconsistent point of view run the risk of destabilising readers unless handled with great control ... As a poet, Vuong is a prodigious talent, his handling of words and images both brutal and delicate, his treatment of violence, sex and the body radically clear-eyed. In a novel, though, metaphors don’t always detonate in the same way that they do in the confined space of a poem, especially if they are devalued by being too frequent or thrown out casually, their meaning not fully mined ... My friend who loved it said that she had to read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous in small doses. I did too, but out of a sense of frustration that a valuable testament from such a promising writer should be so hard to read. It’s possible that the novel simply isn’t Vuong’s form; it’s also possible that given more time, and further drafts, this book could have been brought to perfection. Either way, it will be fascinating to see what this extraordinarily gifted writer does next.
... a prose so vivid and sensuous that each word seemed to excavate some unknown meaning from itself ... The story is complex, electric, and heart-breaking, but the style may be more contentious: jam-packed with extended metaphors and penned in a turgid style, some will find it rich and rewarding; others, affected and indulgent ... Vuong’s portrait of mothering and shared family trauma, however, is genuine and raw, wholly untouched by affectation. The fragmented narrative of Little Dog’s mother is fiercely compelling—it’s hard to look away from her, and even harder to watch ... Disguised as the unlikely love story between two young boys, one a redneck and the other from an immigrant family, the romance in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is truly between a man—Little Dog, his voice a proxy for Vuong’s own—and his love for language. The novel is brimming with reflections on what it means to be a writer, each sentence pulsing with a casual poetry. It is an ode to language and grammar, reverent without seeming masturbatory, with descriptions that any logophile will obsess over ... With nuanced characters, difficult content, and a labyrinthine style, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous should by all rights be a complicated read. Yet it is a breeze. Each idea is carefully unspooled for the reader, creating digestible micronarratives with easily spotted theses. It seems as though Vuong is analyzing the text as he writes it, pointing out symbols and unpacking the subtext, chiseling the story’s complexity into something simpler, a hodgepodge of quasi-profound insights and overwrought motifs. The result is a bizarre hybrid of conventional narrative and lyrical essay—sure to make many readers roll their eyes, while making every English major and MFA student absurdly happy. I would recommend this book with reservation to the casual reader and tentatively even to literature lovers—but fervently to aspiring writers.
Those readers familiar with Vuong’s poetry will recognize the same calibrated orality; he turns beautiful phrases which lend his pronouncements the timeless quality of deeply-earned wisdom ... There is a new avant-garde afoot, and Vuong claims his own form, making the kind of grand gestures few writers would dare. Sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes pretentious, sometimes both at once. And as compelled as a reader might be by the gorgeous language, or the political force and wisdom of Vuong’s insights, the novel lacks a compelling structure and sometimes loses its voltage through repetition, with many of the better observations dulled by the presence of so many similar ones throughout. This is a work worthy of attention for its exploration of class, race, sexuality and generational trauma. The committed reader will find much of value, but others may give up before they reach the end ... To read books like these in a turbulent and confusing time can be a miraculous way to see one’s place in the universe as intentional. On earth we are not always gorgeous; and neither are the events in this novel. But there is a certain awe that comes in the wake of our worst moments, right alongside the best ones.
... as lyrical and haunting as his poetry ... This book is difficult to categorize; while a novel, its form and movement recall an extended braided essay. However, what’s more important than genre is the fact that this book contains a coming-of-age story about a queer Vietnamese boy, the kind of story that isn’t often given page space in American literature ... Vuong’s novel joins this wave of Asian American creative output and assertiveness, in which Asian American artists can and do represent themselves, staking out a space where many said that there was no room ... This writer puts into his letters all of his hurt, happiness, and self-discovery—and in giving a name to those memories and experiences, he brings them into being.
Thoughtful and tender ... Sketching a moving portrait of a fraught bond, Vuong meditates on the powers of storytelling and reckons with the legacy of collective trauma ... As a mosaic of portraiture, self-representation, and philosophical musing, the opening chapter signals what lies ahead: a fragmented, elliptical text that moves around in time and considers the emotional toll of war and displacement upon Vietnamese Americans. In poetic prose, Little Dog’s letter charts not just his coming-of-age story but also the sorrows and desires of those closest to him ... At a mesmerizing pace, Little Dog speeds through memories of late-night strolls, inexhaustible conversations, covert sex, and hits of weed and cocaine. Embedded within the narrative are bittersweet, lush descriptions of Hartford’s countryside ... While rarely citing his sources, Little Dog navigates troubling topics by using as guideposts the works of a diverse mix of writers ... Through such allusions he frames himself as curious, open minded, and in conversation with a vast body of literature ... Regardless of the truth-value assigned to On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the work’s an affecting meditation on immigration, violence, family, and love, as well as a thoughtful exploration of the ways in which writing can reshape the self’s relationship to others and the past. With grace and insight, Vuong contemplates how memory can act as a tool for change, and establishes himself as a promising novelist.
Vuong mines his memories, his traumas, his triumphs to create an epistolary masterpiece addressed to his mother—who can't read ... Fearless, revelatory, extraordinary; an essential acquisition for every library.
In Vuong’s acrobatic storytelling, Lan’s traumatic wartime tale unspools in a spiraling dive, and a portrait of Trevor emerges in the snapshots of a 10-page prose poem. Casting a truly literary spell, Vuong’s tale of language and origin, beauty and the power of story, is an enrapturing first novel.
Vuong has written one of the most lauded poetry debuts in recent memory, and his first foray into fiction is poetic in the deepest sense—not merely on the level of language, but in its structure and its intelligence, moving associationally from memory to memory, quoting Barthes, then rapper 50 Cent. The result is an uncategorizable hybrid of what reads like memoir, bildungsroman, and book-length poem. More important than labels, though, is the novel’s earnest and open-hearted belief in the necessity of stories and language for our survival. A raw and incandescently written foray into fiction by one of our most gifted poets.
Vuong’s prose shines in the intimate scenes between the young men, but sometimes the lyricism has a straining, vague quality. Nevertheless, this is a haunting meditation on loss, love, and the limits of human connection.