Ocean Vuong’s novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”, pulls few punches. The subject matter almost demands it does not: homosexuality, the Vietnam war, being a post-war Vietnamese resident in the US, old age, love and death. Not a cocktail of subjects which lends itself to kid gloves perhaps.
And given that cocktail, there could be a risk that such a novel becomes strident, over-opinionated; it could easily take a position and vigorously defend it – even if it wasn’t under attack.
One of the most striking attributes of Vuong’s book – and perhaps the thing that prevents its descent into diatribe – is the intricate, lyrical nature of his prose. It constantly weaves motifs in and out of the main narrative – butterflies and buffaloes, for example! – in such a way as to continuously draw the threads of the story together. Not only do these extended metaphors perform the function of bringing cohesion, they keep the story personal; they help hold us inside the mind of ‘Little Dog’ as he meanders his way through what is effectively a love letter to his mother.
It is a bold endeavour, and I can see why it was so well received. The ending is particularly well crafted.