'On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous' Review: Ocean Vuong's Autobiographical DebutVietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong's words are mighty, teasing and overpowering in his autobiographical novel, written as a letter from a son to his illiterate mother.
Here's an SAT word for you: "aptronym." An aptronym is a proper name that's especially "apt" for describing the person who bears it. Take Usain Bolt, the bolt-of-lighting Jamaican sprinter, or the poet William Wordsworth. Now, add to the list Ocean Vuong.
Vuong was given the name "Ocean" by his mother, a Vietnamese immigrant who worked as a manicurist. As the story goes, a customer corrected her pronunciation of the word "beach," which, when she said it, sounded like that word that rhymes with "witch." Vuong's mother adopted the word "ocean" instead, and when she learned that it refers to a body of water that can connect countries — such the United States and Vietnam — she gave her son the hopeful name of Ocean.
In his poetry and in his just-published debut novel called On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong writes about the yearning for connection that afflicts immigrants. But "ocean" also describes the distinctive way Vuong writes: His 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.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is an autobiographical novel in the form of a letter — a letter written by a son named Little Dog to his illiterate mother. "Dear Ma," the novel begins, "I am writing to reach you — even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are." In that one line, Vuong, via Little Dog, has described the unintended rift that education can cause within a working-class immigrant family.
Little Dog was born in Vietnam, but, like Vuong himself, he was brought to the U.S. as a small child. The "Dear Ma" letter Little Dog writes as a 20-something young man in the 1990s roams through his family history, monumental and small: We hear how Little Dog's grandmother escaped from her arranged marriage in Vietnam and how "her body, her purple dress ... kept her alive" as a sex worker.
We also hear how the remembered violence of the Vietnam War transmutes itself into the frequent slaps and punches rained down on Little Dog by his mother. "I didn't know," Little Dog writes to her, "that the war was still inside you ... [and] that once it enters you it never leaves — but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son."
And then there's this memory that Little Dog shares with Ma, the classic ordeal where the bullies-on-the-school-bus torture the outsider. It's one of the most familiar scenes in literature and film. But listen to a few sentences and hear how Vuong, through Little Dog, takes us deep into the shame and helplessness:
"Speak English," said the boy with a yellow bowl cut ...
"Look at me when I'm talking to you."
He was only nine but had already mastered the dialect of damaged American fathers. The boys crowded around me, sensing entertainment. ...
When I did nothing but close my eyes, the boy slapped me. ...
I stared at my feet, at the shoes you bought me, [Ma], the ones with red lights that flashed on the soles when I walked. ... I kicked my shoes, gently at first, then faster. My sneakers erupted with silent flares: the world's smallest ambulances, going nowhere.
There are extended riffs throughout Vuong's novel on subjects like Tiger Woods' racial heritage and on the word "sorry," which, Little Dog writes, is the "most common English word" spoken by Asian nail salon workers.
It's also the most common English word spoken by the mostly Hispanic laborers to their white boss in the tobacco fields where Little Dog works as a teenager and where he falls in love with a white boy named Trevor. Little Dog confesses to Ma that Trevor was "[t]he boy from whom I learned there was something even more brutal and total than work — want."
In an essay he wrote three years ago for The New Yorker, Vuong, who was born in Ho Chi Minh Cityand came to the U.S. when he was 2, recalled, "When I entered kindergarten, I was, in a sense, immigrating all over again, except this time into English." 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.
Correction June 6, 2019
A previous audio version of this story incorrectly said Ocean Vuong was born in Hanoi city. Vuong was actually born in Ho Chi Minh city.