Poet Ocean Vuong's debut novel is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family's history that began before he was born—a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam—and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known.
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.