On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
by Ocean Vuong
(Penguin Press, 2019)

Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is written in the from of a letter to his mother. He mentions a few times that he is uncertain whether or not she’ll ever see or read it—she’s illiterate and wouldn’t be able to read it even if she did see it. There’s no mention as to why he’s concerned about her ever seeing it: did he lose her address? Is he out of postage stamps? Can’t he just drive it over himself and read it to her? But it’s part of the pervasive melancholy wailing that permeates the book. He recounts the abuse he suffered as a child at her hands, even tells her the story of his own birth, and if you wonder how (or why) he would think she needs to hear him tell her that, he also tells her the events of her own childhood in this “letter.”

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous follows Vuong’s multiple-award winning poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Being a poet, he writes this letter with quasi-profundity (“But I can’t tell you why the dead outnumber the living.”) and absurd metaphor (“What is a country but a life sentence?”). Sometimes it’s written in first person, other times second person, but always with the gloom of someone who feels picked upon, excluded, and inferior. The Vietnamese language does not use past participles, and Vuong cited that as a reason for the difficulty in writing this book. But past participles or not, the flow of the story is destroyed by the fractured narrative.

Vuong’s abusive mother displays a degree of sadism that can only be found in Quentin Tarantino movies. The first time she hit him he was four (Vuong’s brain obviously had greater memory capabilities than most four-year-olds), and she would sometimes lock him in the basement for wetting the bed. At one point, he finds his mother in the kitchen holding a butcher knife and hissing at him, “Get out. Get out.” She slapped him around once after coming home from work and finding his green plastic army men all over the floor, and another time she flung a ceramic tea pot at him that “exploded on my cheek.” Perhaps Vuong’s neck musculature was too stout or stiff to give way to the tea pot projectile, or maybe it was just a cheap pot. But all of this can be cast into doubt with his claim that she threw a Lego box at him with such force it left blood splatters on the wall. Highly unlikely, unless she fired it from a Howitzer.

Vuong tries to explain his mother’s behavior as being the result of her wartime experiences in Vietnam and PTSD. She left Vietnam in 1988 around the time the Amerasian Homecoming Act was passed. Vuong was two years old then and his name was Vuong Quoc Vinh. He says his mother changed his name to Ocean after a pedicure customer suggested she use the word ocean instead of beach, which with her Vietnamese accent sounded like “bitch.” It seems like an unusual impetus for a name change and one can’t help but wonder if he changed it himself to help his artistic marketability, in the manner of the crooner of the pop rock hit “Caribbean Queen.”

There’s a disturbing trend in these memoirs, novels, and now this “letter” that poets write about/to their mothers. These boys have a fascination with their mother’s underwear (see also Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart). Vuong mentions how he would sometimes order underwear for his mother on the Victoria’s Secret 1-800 number because her English was so limited. He said the customer service operators would be intrigued at a boy ordering lingerie for his mom and often resulted in interesting “sweet” conversations. However, Vuong also tell us of growing up in grinding poverty (his mother’s ESL classes took up a quarter of her income), making it inexplicable why she didn’t just go to Walmart, where underwear can be found at a fraction of the price of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. He also goes into the details of undoing her bra before giving her back massages, which I’ll spare you from here.

Of course, there are numerous instances of Vuong being bullied as a child. A group of boys attacked and beat him on the school bus (no explanation as to why the bus driver failed to notice a dozen boys leaving their seats to jump him), he was taunted while wearing his mother’s dress in the front yard of their home, and he was stopped on his bicycle by a bully who did not like its pink color. (He claims his mother bought it for him because the girl’s pink bike was the cheapest in the store.) The bully took a “key chain” and scraped all the pink paint off and then let Ocean have his bicycle back. Upon returning home with the stripped bike, his mother took a bottle of pink nail polish and repainted it pink. If the bully didn’t like the bike’s new nail enamel paint job, there was no mention of it. Someone did, however, spray paint FAG4LIFE on their apartment front door—one could reasonably assume the paint-stripper was the culprit.

Vuong does briefly find happiness when he meets Trevor, the grandson of the farmer that owned the tobacco farm where Vuong worked one summer. Trevor is virile, masculine, even a bit macho as Vuong describes him, wearing an army helmet as he cut tobacco in the summer heat. (Maybe wearing an army helmet while cutting tobacco is something unique on Connecticut farms; I’ve never seen anyone wearing steel helmets cutting tobacco in Tennessee. One can’t help but wonder if this is just a bizarre romantic fantasy embellishment.) They begin their affair there in the drying barn on the farm. Trevor is a drug addict, having been prescribed pain pills after breaking his ankle a couple of years prior to meeting Ocean. He has the typical problems of a drug addict: wrapping his father’s truck around a tree, mental ailments, physical ailments. But again, like many times in this novel, credulity is strained when we are told Trevor has to be rushed to the ER after suffering a seizure in the basement of his home. Trevor lived with his father in a mobile home behind the interstate, making it unlikely that there was a basement to have a seizure in. Vuong wastes no time in laying the blame for Trevor’s, and indeed all of America’s, drug addiction right square with Purdue Pharmaceuticals, even citing their revenues and profits as proof of their culpability.

Perhaps Vuong, an associate professor in the creative writing MFA program at UM Amherst, decided that the memoir has been overplayed when it comes to writing of “mama drama” and thought it necessary put his book in the form of a letter, a letter to someone who cannot read. Of course, in an actual letter, the writer does not have to constantly remind the recipient of all the things the recipient has already said in the past; the writer certainly does not have to tell the recipient the recipient’s own life story. Anybody receiving such a letter would of course wonder what the point is. This must be what passes for “creativity” in today’s MFA programs.

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