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

While ostensibly chronicling his family history, from the war-torn Vietnam his mother and schizophrenic grandmother witnessed, to the immigrant experience in the US, the author of this novel provides a breathtaking look at contemporary America, from morphine addiction to racial and class-based inequality and the politics of integration and queerness.

The novel is structured as a letter to the author’s mother, who cannot read in English, giving the author license to say things that he may never have been able to communicate with her in their common tongue, which the author describes as follows:

“The Vietnamese I own is the one you gave me, the one whose diction and syntax reach only the second-grade level. […] a time capsule, a mark of where your education ended, ashed. Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.”

All through the book, the author plays with language in a fascinating way, at times veering into poetry, at times examining language itself, facilitated perhaps by the distance provided by his mother’s unfamiliarity with the English language:

“How often do we name something after its briefest form? Rose bush, rain, butterfly, snapping turtle, firing squad, childhood, death, mother tongue, me, you.”

For me, as well as its emotional impact, many parts of the book have a powerful wit and humour to them which made me linger over certain passages.

The immigrant experience in the US (although one could also say more generally) is captured in passages such as the one that follows, about the nail salon in which his mother works:

“In the nail salon, sorry is a tool one uses to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer merely apologizes, but insists, reminds: I’m here, right here, beneath you. It is the lowering of oneself so that the client feels right, superior, and charitable. In the nail salon one’s definition of sorry is deranged into a new word entirely, one that’s charged and reused as both power and defacement at once. Being sorry pays, being sorry even, or especially, when one has no fault, is worth every self-deprecating syllable the mouth allows. Because the mouth must eat.”

The author later echoes his mother’s self-deprecation, while working on a tobacco plantation, when he meets his first lover for the first time:

“I would know only later that he was Buford’s grandson, working the farm to get away from his vodka-soaked old man. And because I am your son, I said “Sorry.” Because I am your son, my apology had become, by then, an extension of myself. It was my H

But the novel also touches on other issues in the US, like the impact of the marketing of oxycontin by the pharmaceutical industry to doctors leading to drug dependency among wide swathes of the US population and the overdose deaths of many of the author’s friends.

What I loved about the book was how real the author seemed in his thought patterns, in the realistic way memories flitted up during conversation and associations click in his mind, even if they weren’t verbalized by the character at that time. There is also an honesty to the portrayal of his sexual experiences which makes them rawer and more real. Think Peep Show‘s portrayal of sex without the comic aspect. I also liked how real his coming out conversation is with his mother, as the ball is taken completely out of his court as she confronts him with her own truths, which I think is part of a lot of people’s coming out experience.

One of the tidbits of cultural information about Vietnam was about the use of drag performers in funeral processions, which is similar but different to the gaudy performances at Taiwanese funerals:

“City coroners, underfunded, don’t always work around the clock. When someone dies in the middle of the night, they get trapped in a municipal limbo where the corpse remains inside its death. As a response, a grassroots movement was formed as a communal salve. Neighbors, having learned of a sudden death, would, in under an hour, pool money and hire a troupe of drag performers for what was called “delaying sadness” […] It’s through the drag performers’ explosive outfits and gestures, their overdrawn faces and voices, their tabooed trespass of gender, that this relief, through extravagant spectacle, is manifest. As much as they are useful, paid, and empowered as a vital service in a society where to be queer is still a sin, the drag queens are, for as long as the dead lie in the open, an othered performance. Their presumed, reliable fraudulence is what makes their presence, to the mourners, necessary. Because, grief, at its worst, is unreal. And it calls for a surreal response.”

Anyway, there’s so much more that I don’t really know how to describe, but a great read, would definitely recommend.

5/5

The Sound of a Falling Angel in the Night – Lolita Hu 夜裡天使墮落的聲音——胡晴舫

Image Lolita Hu (胡晴舫) was born in Taipei and graduated from the Foreign Languages Department of National Taiwan University and went on to get her masters in the Theatre Department of The University of Wisconsin. In 1999 she moved to Hong Kong. She writes cultural criticism as well as short stories and essays. Her works have been published in the media in Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. She currently lives in Tokyo.

Dim light is cast by the dragon-head-shaped wall lights, the pulse of electro shakes the entire space, comfy sofas divide the room into different nooks and crannies for people to drink in, pink nylon and muslin hang from the ceiling to the floor, prints of hundreds of bored faces are faintly discernible upon it. It could only be the hottest spot in Beijing this weekend.

Every three months a new nightclub appears in Beijing, and everybody trips over themselves to go there. The nightclub will normally be in a hutong, a dilapidated courtyard style house or a factory that’s about to be demolished. The same people every time scurry along to explore the new bar, they spout their cigarette smoke while telling you in lofty tones how the music in this new place is cool. After three months have passed, if it’s not that the style of the music has changed, or that the building which houses the club has suddenly been demolished by the city government, then it’s that it loses popularity for no particular reason whatsoever. Another bar opens, it’s also housed in an old factory, a hutong, or a traditional courtyard style house, wherever it may be, it always sounds incredibly cool.

Everyone vies with one another to be the first to spread the news. Then, at the new bar you meet the same familiar faces who recommended the old bar to you so enthusiastically.

When someone mentions the old bar, it’s as if they’re talking about a has-been celebrity. It’s so passé, they say. I don’t even know why it was so popular in the first place, it’s only logical that it’s become as out of fashion as it should have been in the first place.

It’s Friday night at 2am at the hottest bar of this couple of months, situated in the Sanlitun area. She has drunk quite a lot, but she’s still quite sober. She came with a friend who had a song twenty years ago which was popular throughout the whole of Beijing but who never followed it up with any other songs, when meeting a stranger he would always say “I’m so-and-so, do you want to buy me a drink?’. She would stand next to her friend, then not long after that she would ditch him, and sit down next to an immaculately dressed foreigner.

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