On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Summary

Ocean Vuong's debut novel On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is written in the form of a letter from a young Vietnamese American man to his mother.

  • The narrator, Little Dog, recounts his childhood with his grandmother and his emotionally unstable mother, Rose, after the family left Vietnam for the US.
  • As a teenager, Little Dog fell in love with a boy named Travis; the two experimented with drugs, and Little Dog came out to Rose as gay.
  • While Little Dog was at college, Travis died of an overdose. Little Dog also recalls the death of his grandmother, Lan, and her burial in Go Cong.

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Last Updated on February 11, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2490

Introduction

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong is an epistolary novel: it takes the form of a long letter from a conflicted son to his emotionally unstable mother, a woman whose schoolhouse was destroyed by American napalm before she could learn to read. The novel is broken into...

(The entire section contains 2490 words.)

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Introduction

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong is an epistolary novel: it takes the form of a long letter from a conflicted son to his emotionally unstable mother, a woman whose schoolhouse was destroyed by American napalm before she could learn to read. The novel is broken into short scenes and moves between them, past and present, from the perspective of both a boy experiencing and a man interpreting.

Part 1

The letter begins with death: the yet-unintroduced narrator recalls a somber moment he once shared with his mother at a rest stop in Virginia. In his memory, she stares into the black eyes of a taxidermy buck mounted above the vending machines, and in them she sees herself. She is still shaken when they returned to the car, wondering aloud why someone would do that to a corpse. Corpses, she believes, “should go away, not get stuck forever like that.”

The narrator wishes he could return to that moment—and to his mother, who is far away both in distance and in time. He says he is writing in order to break free, like prey from a hunter.

The narrator’s name is Little Dog, though he has many others. His grandmother named him according to the tradition in her village, where the “smallest and weakest of the flock, as [he] was, is named after the most despicable things: demon, ghost child, pig snout, monkey-born, buffalo head, bastard—little dog being the more tender one.” They did this because evil spirits looked for healthy, beautiful children; they spared the ghastly ones.

To love something, then, is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched—and alive. A name, thin as air, can also be a shield.

His grandmother named herself and her second daughter, Little Dog’s mother, after flowers. Born nameless, she chose to be Lan—Lily—after running from her first marriage, one that had been arranged between her family and her husband, an elderly man. Lan’s mother would not allow her to return home and, unable to find a job, she became a sex worker in Saigon, taking American soldiers home to her rented room. At twenty-eight, she gave birth to a daughter, Hong, the Vietnamese word for Rose.

Lan tells Little Dog the story of how she met his grandfather, Paul. It was 1967 in Saigon, and Lan had just finished her work for the evening. She went to a bar and began talking to Paul, an American GI who was waiting for a date who never arrived. They shared stories about growing up in their respective countries, bonded over their rural upbringing, fell in love, and married a year later, when Rose was a year old.

Rose later tells her son that the story is not true. Lan was four months pregnant by the time she met Paul. Her father, his real grandfather, was a nameless GI whose identity is meaningless: he was nobody, one of any of the men Lan had been with. A wistful Paul confirms this during their next visit. He tells Little Dog that it may be best for him not to be called Grandpa anymore. Little Dog says no, Paul is the only grandfather he has. Paul agrees, first reluctantly, and soon with surety.

Rose, who had been tormented in Vietnam for being light-skinned, which was proof of her mother’s treacherous dalliance with the enemy, is able to “pass” for white in America. At least, Little Dog notes, until she speaks her “stuttered” and “garbled” English.

He recalls a trip to a department store when he was eight, and the saleswoman asking Rose if the darker-skinned child was hers or adopted. When she is unable to respond, Little Dog uses “exactly eighty percent” of the English he speaks at the time to answer for himself:

“No, madam,” I said to the woman in my ESL English. “That’s my mom. I came out her asshole and I love her very much. I am seven. Next year I will be eight. I’m doing fine. I feel good how about you? Merry Christmas Happy New Year.”

His mother, “like many Vietnamese mothers,” did not speak about female genitalia. Instead, she would playfully tell her son that his “huge noggin nearly tore up my asshole!”

Rose is not often lighthearted. Little Dog has read that parents with PTSD are more likely to hit their children, as she often did. He considers the lifecycle of monarch butterflies and how their migration is “triggered by the angle of sunlight.” As they leave, they lay eggs. Their route is always one way; the butterflies that fly south never return north. It’s only their children who return. He imagines monarchs flying away not from winter, but from the napalm clouds of his mother’s childhood in Vietnam.

He remembers leaping out at his mother from behind a door, shouting “Boom!” like a soldier on TV. He is five or six, and she screams and sobs, gasping in what he does not yet understand to be a triggered episode of post-traumatic stress. When unsettled, Rose hits Little Dog with open palms, remotes, Legos, jugs of milk. Her emotional dysregulation recurs throughout his childhood in bursts of violence and regret. When she is forty-six, she has a “sudden desire to color,” spending hours in a dreamlike state with crayons and coloring books. She asks her son if he has ever made a scene and put himself inside of it, so that he is at once inside his body and looking at it from afar.

Part 2

Rose’s coarse hands reflect the three decades she has spent working in factories and nail salons. Little Dog hates the way “they are the wreck and reckoning of a dream.” He can feel the salon’s chemicals rise from his mother’s wasted body at the end of the day. The salon, he notes, is

a makeshift classroom where we arrive, fresh off the boat, the plane, the depths, hoping the salon would be a temporary stop—until we get on our feet, or rather, until our jaws soften around English syllables—bend over workbooks at manicure desks, finishing homework for nighttime ESL classes that cost a quarter of our wages.

At fourteen, Little Dog meets a boy named Trevor at his own first job, picking tobacco on a farm outside of Hartford. He feels not desire but “the coiled charge of its possibility.” They spend the summer talking about guns and video games, and how much they hate their fathers. Little Dog notices everything about Trevor, from his neon-yellow Gatorade to his “grey irises smattered with bits of ember so that, looking at them, you could almost see, right behind you, something burning under an overcast sky.”

Trevor introduces Little Dog to drugs (marijuana and cocaine) in the barn where tobacco leaves are hung from the rafters to dry in the summer air. Lying side-by-side on the bare floor, they begin to touch, almost imperceptibly, as Trevor explains the game of football. Soon, the boys act upon their mutual longing, beginning a relationship that lasts for years, much of it spent in Trevor’s rust-red Chevy or the dilapidated mobile home he shares with his father.

Surfacing from the sheets, his face shone through the wet mask we made of our scavenge. He was white, I never forgot this. He was always white. And I knew this was why there was a space for us: a farm, a field, a barn, a house, an hour, two. A space I never found in the city, where the tenement apartments we lived in were so cramped one could tell when a neighbor had a stomach flu in the middle of the night. To hide here, in a room in a broken-down mobile home, was, somehow, a privilege, a chance. He was white. I was yellow. In the dark, our facts lit us up and our acts pinned us down.

Little Dog tells his mother that he doesn’t like girls on a Sunday morning at Dunkin’ Donuts. He avoids the word gay, which, in Vietnamese, is derived from the word for pedophile. He tells her that he is willing to leave so that no one has to know. She is worried that this means he will start wearing dresses and that people will kill him for it. She asks when it began, saying that she gave birth to a “healthy, normal boy.” She says she does not want him to leave. Sitting still at their table in the busy Dunkin’ Donuts, she shares a secret of her own.

When she was seventeen, she was pregnant with another child, but her husband forced her to have an abortion. There was so little food that people added sawdust to their rice and were grateful to find rats to eat. After a month of taking the medication meant to terminate her pregnancy, Rose had to be rushed to the emergency room for a procedure she describes as being like a spoon gliding through the flesh of a papaya, scraping out the seeds. A week after she left the hospital, she says, that child visited her in a dream. He came to her at home, Rose believes, because he wanted to see what his mother looked like.

Little Dog comforts his mother. He doesn’t tell her that only a few weeks before, he had danced in the barn for Trevor while wearing a dress that belonged to Rose herself.

Over dinner, I’ll pull in my chair and, taking off my hood, a sprig of hay caught there from the barn weeks before will stick out from my black hair. You will reach over, brush it off, and shake your head as you take in the son you decided to keep.

Part 3

Little Dog reads his texts on the train from New York City to Hartford:

u hear abt trev?
check fb
it’s about Trevor pick up
fuck this si horrifc call me if u want
I just saw. damn
i’ll call ashley to make sure
just lmk ur good
the wakes on sunday
its trev this time? I knew it
For no reason, I text him: Trevor I’m sorry come back, then turn off the phone, terrified he’d answer.

It’s drugs and dreams that have come between them: codeine and cocaine, fentanyl patches and heroin for Trevor. A city college in Brooklyn for Little Dog. Five and a half years after the two unite in the barn, Trevor succumbs to the opioid epidemic. He had been prescribed OxyContin for a broken ankle at age fifteen. “After a month on the Oxy,” Little Dog writes, “Trevor’s ankle healed, but he was a full-blown addict.”

Little Dog reveals that the night in the barn with Trevor was not actually his first experience with cocaine. He had done a line the year before, at age fourteen, and felt as though he just discovered himself.

One afternoon, while watching TV with Lan, we saw a herd of buffalo run, single file, off a cliff, a whole steaming row of them thundering off the mountain in Technicolor. “Why they die themselves like that?” she asked, mouth open. Like usual, I made something up on the spot: “They don’t mean to, Grandma. They’re just following their family. That’s all. They don’t know it’s a cliff.”
“Maybe they should have a stop sign then.”
We had many stop signs on our block. They weren’t always there. There was this woman named Marsha down the street. She was overweight and had hair like a rancher’s widow, a kind of mullet cut with thick bangs. She would go door-to-door, hobbling on her bad leg, gathering signatures for a petition to put up stop signs in the neighborhood. She has two boys herself, she told you at the door, and she wants all the kids to be safe when they play.
Her sons were Kevin and Kyle. Kevin, two years older than me, overdosed on heroin. Five years later, Kyle, the younger one, also overdosed. After that Marsha moved to a mobile park in Coventry with her sister. The stop signs remain.

Trevor is twenty-two when he dies from an overdose of heroin laced with fentanyl. Little Dog has read that bipolar disorder has been linked to addiction; it’s all a matter of chemicals. He understands that depression, like pain, has become an industry with the power to make people rich. He reluctantly takes his medication for bipolar disorder, worried that his elation, like his sadness, is something he has fought for, something worth learning from.

Little Dog has never done heroin because he is afraid of needles, but he has been with Trevor as he pedaled his bicycle for hours, looking to score. He’s been there while Trevor shot up and while Trevor seized on the floor of his father’s trailer, experiencing neither his first overdose nor his last. Maybe in the next life, Little Dog writes, he and Trevor will meet each other not as buffaloes but as monarchs who grow wings as they spill over the cliff, heading home.

He recalls the day his Grandma Lan was diagnosed with cancer, already metastatic, and was given no more than three weeks to live. She doesn’t believe the diagnosis, but she does believe the pain, needing ever more narcotics to dull the fire she feels inside. Hours before she dies, she asks for the impossible: rice from Go Cong. The family steams rice from the kitchen and presents it as having been harvested from Go Cong the week before. After Lan eats her only bite, she appears relieved. “So sweet,” she says. “That’s our rice—so sweet.”

Five months later, they bring her ashes home to Go Cong. Little Dog calls Lan’s estranged ex-husband, Paul, in Virginia. Paul asks to see her one last time, and Little Dog Skypes the gravesite to his pseudo-grandfather. Paul says goodbye to Lan, apologizing for having left her alone in Vietnam and for all that came after.

Little Dog spirals through memories: his grandfather in the garden, a letter from his father in prison, his first Thanksgiving, the story of the first time his mother was beaten. He chooses to run toward his future—and with it, his past.

Yes, there was a war. Yes, we came from its epicenter. In that war, a woman gifted herself a new name—Lan—in that naming claimed herself beautiful, then made that beauty into something worth keeping. From that, a daughter was born, and from that daughter, a son.
All this time I told myself we were born from war—but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty.
Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence—but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.
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