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‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ is a haunting auto-fictional debut

Ocean Vuong’s debut 2019 novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” has been widely agreed to be one of the best books of the year. The book is written in the form of a letter from a son (known to most as “Little Dog”) to his mother, an American-raised child to his Vietnamese war refugee parent. This is just one of the underlying tensions that lends depth and texture to Vuong’s novel, which moves between childhood to adulthood lyrically.

Vuong is already an acclaimed poet, and this is clear in the novel’s prose. It reads almost as a long-form poem, a Baldwin-esque form, with sentences flowing like poetry and evoking the same emotions in every phrase. Unlike Baldwin, though, Vuong’s writing reads as more commonplace, showcasing beauty in everyday words and turns of phrase.

There is an interesting consideration when reading Vuong’s work, categorized as a work of fiction. It was impossible for me to not wonder how much of the work itself was drawn from Vuong’s own life. This brings up the line between forms of writing as much as the poetry/prose divide. How does one determine what genre a book is, whether it is memoir or fiction? I suppose it is the author’s choice—who are we, as readers, to say that the book is true? What details, observations, events are allowed to come together in the pages to create a beautiful, realistic fabrication? Vuong’s book is an example of autofiction, existing in a liminal space in between definitions which Vuong deftly navigates.

“Little Dog” journeys through ideas and questions of family, belonging, violence and survival, understanding and connection. These themes depend on and grow with each other, twisting into the story of “Little Dog’s” child and young adulthood. The story is specific, the universality of human experience found in each individual explored.

If you are looking for your next book, I highly recommend “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” Vuong’s debut bodes well for his future work, and even if he were to stop writing now it would stand as an example of how to tell a life’s story—but it is clear from his words that he will not stop, that he is pulled to the act of writing, the act of communicating. In his own written words, “I wasn’t trying to make a sentence—I was trying to break free.”

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