A review of Ocean Vuong’s debut novel ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’

By Marc de Faoite

Ocean Vuong’s Debut novel ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ is epistolary in style, that is it takes the form of a broad ranging and rambling letter written to the narrator’s mother. Subjects include: the health impacts of acetone exposure, migrant labour in the tobacco industry, veal, golfer Tiger Woods, more veal, code-switching, and lots and lots of graphic homosexual sex, with a little bit, no, actually a whole lot more added on for extra effect. The latter is described with exactly the kind of precise anatomical libidinous detail anyone would happily put in a letter to their mother. And did I mention there’s lots and lots of it?

If that all sounds like a mixed bag of a book that’s because it is. But on a sentence level it is perhaps the most beautifully written book I’ve read this year (with the possible exception of Underland by Robert MacFarlane). It is also the book I have skipped the most pages of in a long time, uniquely due to the fact that I’m not as interested in the lurid details of man parts and their use as the narrator assumes his mother will be. But the author lures the reader in first, so that the unwitting participant is well into the novel before the sexy stuff begins, depending partially on the inertia of sunken costs fallacy (but mostly masterful prose) to draw the reader on, whereas if he had started with all that that this reader probably, no, actually definitely would have put down the book, whereas for others of course this might be precisely the reason to pick it up.

But ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ is much more than meticulously described thrusting and panting, though, at the risk of labouring the point, there is plenty of that. Even though it jumps between seemingly random topics it does so in a way that seems (mostly) natural and (mostly) unforced.

But back to the mother, she to whom this missive is directed. She is perhaps the most interesting character here, with the possible exception of her own mother, and before you know it we’re plunged into a multi-generational continent-spanning saga that encompasses the Vietnam War and some of its enduring consequences. Both women are far more interesting than Trevor, the nameless (unless you count Little Dog as a name, which his family members do) narrator’s love interest.

Would I have enjoyed this book more without the (excessive) prurient carnality? Definitely, but that’s just me, because I’m more interested in a story than in an instruction manual. But the rest of the book was more than sufficient to make it still worth my time, though admittedly I found my attention flagging towards the end, an issue admittedly probably not entirely unrelated to my skipping many (of the many) erotic interludes. But while I’m interested in story I’m even more interested in writing, style over substance, the telling over the tale so to speak, because I’m Irish like that, and on that level I was not one bit disappointed. Nope, not even remotely. In short, an incredibly beautifully-written novel (with a light smattering of gay sex in places).

Oh- and there’s the bit where he says the French word ‘Pédé’ (pejoratively deployed to describe the homosexual men) is derived from ‘pédophile’. It isn’t. It comes from ‘pédéraste’. Paedophilia and homosexuality are obviously not the same thing. I was surprised this slipped past the editors.

About Marc de Faoite

Born in Dublin, Marc de Faoite is based in Langkawi and has lived in Malaysia fulltime since 2007. His short stories, articles, and book reviews have been published both in print and online, both locally and internationally. Tropical Madness, a collection of his short stories published by Malaysian publisher Fixi Novo, was longlisted for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.