Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

I think the lines between fiction and nonfiction are often blurred. Particularly, the raw and honest way Ocean Vuong poetically weaves the story of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous feels as if he’s capturing snippets of his life and turning them into words.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is about childhood memories revisited, the effects of war, and an immigrant story. It is written as a letter from the narrator “Little Dog” to his illiterate mother. His words are so honest and vulnerable as they flow from his heart, perhaps due to the security and knowledge that she will never read it. Can words mend wounds? Because I felt my heart bleeding onto these pages before he single-handedly stitched it up.

Little Dog explores his own existence, forged from tragedy, trauma, and the violence perpetuated and passed down throughout generations. He recounts childhood abuse and bullying, his words full of anger and resentment. The letter details the repercussions of the Vietman War, with memories of his mother suffering PTSD, unable to bear noise because it reminds her of bombings. 

fountain pen on a letter

“When does a war end? When can I say your name and have it mean only your name and not what you left behind?”

All in the same breath, Little Dog describes the love he has for his mother and grandmother with delicate tenderness, while explaining his complex relationships and dual identities. He explores his sexuality and America’s drug epidemic, recounting his first love with farm boy Trevor and later, how the opioid crisis eventually shook his world. He questions language in America and the way it is used through the lexicon of violence and toxic masculinity, built in a country whose identity and past is rooted in celebrating destruction and violence through wars and imperialism. These complex and sometimes harrowing themes lie at the heart of this story of a boy reclaiming agency in a country that, at times, feels more like a foreign land than a home. 

“Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence—but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.”

Vuong’s figurative and lyrical language peels back layers of nuanced insight. He reflects on memories through animal symbolism, poetry, and metaphorical language to connect themes. The passages are built from recurring sentences in non-chronological order. He moves back and forth from his childhood to before he was born, along with flashbacks to the war that reimagine the scenes his mother and grandmother experienced.

I’ve always been interested in works that are both fiction and nonfiction, and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous falls in that category. It is a combination of Vuong’s memories, experiences, and imagination. Our experiences are multi-faceted, and sometimes we fill in the blanks with connections we discover later on or change details to fit the story we want to tell. The line between truth and fiction blurs, and Vuong demonstrates this phenomenon in such a raw, tender way.

It’s a text that one could analyze forever and still make new discoveries. Vuong writes in such a fleetingly beautiful, moving way, that before you know it, you’ve read the last page of a chapter. The feeling of reading his book is impossible to describe adequately, but it's an experience that’s both briefly gorgeous and limitless.