Poetic annihilation of the last vestiges of the Enlightenment
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong
Arguably, the leading edge of Western culture today is where immigration and despair meet in a toxic burst of cross-fertilising questioning. This is exemplified by Ocean Vuong’s phosphorescent debut novel, which is about a traumatised Vietnamese family trying to survive, trapped in suburban, American poverty. The loosely structured tale is narrated in the form of a memoir to his mother by Little Dog, the son of Rose and grand-son of Lily, Vietnamese immigrants, neither of whom can speak much English.
Little Dog’s life closely resembles that of the author, the winner of the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, who – like Little Dog – emigrated aged two with his mother in 1992 from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Hartford, Connecticut. In the novel, Little Dog wants almost to apologise to his Ma for the way things have turned out: the harshness of their lives; the ugliness and racism of America; and the disappointment of his gayness.
For Grandma Lily, lost in a country which is utterly alien, the Vietnam War overshadows everything. She can do one thing, though: she can tell stories, her story, with nothing missed out. This is her gift, and eventually it gives Little Dog a way out.
Vuong layers past and present brilliantly in a shifting series of brief episodes and striking mood-musings from within the mind of his protagonist. Occasionally, the pessimism and the poetic density can overwhelm, and narrative drive is lost. But the hyper-reality of Little Dog’s self-awareness is always a delight to read.
He discovers love, gay love, in the unlikely person of Trevor, a blond, drugged-out American who lives with his drunkard father in a trailer park. Trevor anchors Little Dog, giving him the approval and the visceral sex which he needs so desperately. And there’s something else which Trevor bestows: a no-nonsense directness which (temporarily) punctures Little Dog’s literary pretentiousness.
Trevor, or rather Little Dog’s love for him, occasions scenes of touching dramatic power, all the more powerful for being small scale: when he returns from New York, after hearing of Trevor’s over-dose death, Little Dog ends up huddled next to his uncomprehending mother on her floor-mat: ‘I reach back, clutching two of your fingers, and press my face into the dark slot under the bed.’
The darkness of the novel is relieved by the piercing intensity and creative meditations of the narrator: ‘That’s what writing is, after all the nonsense, getting down so low the world offers a merciful new angle, a larger vision made of small things.’
The pervasiveness of these things – blighted diners, fentanyl patches, spent Smith & Wesson shell casings, discarded Dunkin’ Donuts cups – are not so much a repudiation of the possibility of transcendence as the annihilation of the last vestiges of Enlightenment faith in ‘progress.’ At one low point, Little Dog writes that ‘waste, shit, excess, is what binds the living.’ He inveighs against the drug company which sells the highly addictive painkiller from which Trevor progressed to heroin – and implies that the under-class can have no responsibility for their lives.
And yet Little Dog endures. He witnesses the wasted lives of those around him with compassion, and writes his elegy to Ma, even though she can never read it. His words outrun the violence of past and present, igniting ‘into the ochre-red sparks of monarchs,’ those gorgeous migratory butterflies which carry nothing but their own lives.
About Ocean Vuong
For many immigrants, the best-case scenario is that their children will never really understand them. Think of a woman from Vietnam, the daughter of a farm girl and a nameless G.I., who moves from a refugee camp in the Philippines to public housing in Connecticut. There she raises a son, who was born on a rice farm but grows up in the back rooms of Hartford nail salons, and becomes not just the first person in the family to attend school past the sixth grade but a poet who wins prizes and is hailed in major magazines. The mother cannot speak English, or read any language; the more complex and ambitious the son’s work becomes, the greater the gulf between his writing in English and her basic Vietnamese—and the more impossible it is for her to understand him, in return.
The poet is Ocean Vuong. He is thirty years old, and teaches in the M.F.A. program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His début collection, “Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” was published in 2016, and made him just the second poet to win the T. S. Eliot Prize for a first book.
in The New Yorker
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