I like my writers to be vulnerable. To speak their truth with conviction, undeterred by judgment. How rare and refreshing in 2019 when so many of us rarely say what we mean and mean what we say. It’s all about artifice, cynical self-branding and commodifying the self. And that applies to literature as well as marketing. How many of us can afford to be truthful anyway?
Perhaps that’s why I gravitated towards Ocean Vuong and his celebrated debut novel On Earth Were Briefly Gorgeous. There’s been a lot of heat on this author, not least because his first poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds won the prestigious Whiting Award as well as the Forward prize and TS Eliot prize.
His prose is full of yearning – for identity, intimacy, connection and meaning. Vuong is a young queer man and the child of immigrants from Vietnam. Evolving in that in-between space that many struggle to navigate across generations and cultures has been challenging for him. Every day, every interaction, is an inquiry. So as he explained in this Q&A with author Jacqueline Woodson at Strand Book Store earlier in the year, he wanted to “press these questions into the architecture of a novel” for the benefit of others.
A brief backstory might help at this point. Vuong was born in Saigon, he moved to Philippines at two and grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. He was raised by his mother, grandmother and aunt. Vuong had a few stunted periods of study, first at business school and then on an international marketing course at Pace University in New York.
His mother was illiterate and spoke no English so she worked in a nail salon, a path he could easily have followed had it not been for books and the words of Barthes, Baldwin and Dickinson. He went on to study literature at Brooklyn college, writing poems in his journal at night in his apartment (many of which would be published in Night Sky with Exit Wounds).
His novel has the foundation of truth but is realised by the imagination. For example, the main character is Little Dog, our figment of Vuong. The timeline shifts back and forth, the loose structure an attempt by Vuong to use proximity to create and amplify meaning from chapter to chapter. (Two inspirations are Hayao Miyazaki and Hatsuo Basho.) Emma Brockes describes this well in the Guardian. “It is fluid, moving the way thought moves, in circles not lines…
“It is easy to imagine a bad version of this novel in which any one of its preoccupations might have overgrown to capsize it. It might have been the Opioid Novel, or the Vietnam Novel, or the Exploitative World of the Nail Salon novel. It might have been the Gay Adolescent Love novel or the Violent Childhood novel, all themes that are touched upon lightly while still assuming a fully weighted presence in the narrative. How Vuong does this is a mystery.”
There is poetry and there is the novel. This book is both and neither. It is an ark for all that he has wondered at and those he has most cared for up to this point. Part memory, part reverie, but nothing like an autobiography. It is this blend of myth and reality that makes On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous so compelling. The New Yorker said that reading it felt like watching an act of endurance art.
Vuong has also talked about how the premise of the book and its almost certain failure liberated him. Failure because it is a letter to his mother that she will never read, because she can’t. Through a series of vignettes we meet his family and the spectre of an absent father, feel the trauma of war and displacement to America, the use of storytelling as self-preservation, and liberation of body and mind.
To some, his poetic affectations may seem extravagant, but for me his words feel vital. Like living in the white heat of existence. Bare and vulnerable (yes, that word again). They are intoxicating because he has rendered his world, his consciousness, with such unflinching honesty and quiet defiance, and “pressed it on to paper”.
Here are a few of my favourite lines from the book:
“I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to start a sentence – i was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.”
“It was the summer of 2003, which means Bush had already declared war on Iraq, citing weapons of mass destruction that never materialised, when the Black Eye Peas’ ‘Where Is the Love?’ played on every radio station but especially on PWR 98.6, and you could hear the song from nearly every car on the block if you slept with the windows open, its beats punctuated by the sound of beer bottles bursting on the basketball court across the street, the crackheads lobbing the empties up in the sky, just to see how the streetlights made broken things seem touched by magic, glass sprinkled like glitter on the pavement come morning.”
“We picked for about ten minutes, his presence intensifying on the periphery until he stepped in front of me as I reached to lift a wilted stalk. I looked up at him, a head taller, his finely boned face dirt-streaked under a metal army helmet, tipped slightly backward, as if he had just walked out from one of Lan’s stories and into my hour, somehow smiling.”
“Did you ever feel colored-in when a boy found you with his mouth? What if the body, at its best, is only a longing for body? The blood racing to the heart only to be sent back out, filling the routes, the once empty channels, the miles it takes to take us toward each other. Why did I feel more myself while reaching for him, my hand midair, than I did having touched him?”
“I joined him. ‘Many men, many, many, many, many men.’ We sang, nearly shouting the lyrics, the wind clipping at our voices. They say a song can be a bridge, Ma. But I say it’s also the ground we stand on. And maybe we sing to keep ourselves from falling. Maybe we sing to keep ourselves.”
“I never wanted to build a ‘body of work’, but to preserve these, our bodies, breathing and unaccounted for, inside the work. Take it or leave it. The body, I mean.”
“They say addiction might be linked to bipolar disorder. It’s the chemicals in our brains, they say, got the wrong chemicals, Ma, Or rather, I don’t get enough of one or the other. They have a pill for it. They have an industry. They make millions. Did you know people get rich off of sadness? I want to meet the millionaire of American sadness. I want to look him in the eye, shake his hand and say, ’It’s been an honour to serve my country’.”
“Cocaine, laced with oxycodone, makes everything fast and still at once, like when you’re on the train and, gazing across the fogged New England fields, at the brick Colt factory where cousin Victor works, you see its backened smokestack – parallel to the train, like it’s following you, like where you’re from won’t let you off the hook. Too much joy, I swear, is lost in our desperation to keep it.”
“You asked me what it’s like to be a writer and I’m giving you a mess, I know. But it’s a mess, Ma – I’m not making this up. I made it down. 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 lint suddenly a huge sheet of fog exactly the size of your eyeball. And you look through it and see the thick steam in the all-night bathhouse in Flushing, where someone reached out to me once, traced the trapped flute of my collarbone. I never saw that man’s face, only the gold-rimmed glasses floating in the fog. And then the feeling, the velvet heat of it, everywhere inside me. Is that what art is? To be touched thinking what we feel is ours when, in the end, it was someone else, in longing, who finds us?”