On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Characters

The main characters in On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous are Little Dog, Rose, Lan, Paul, and Trevor.

  • Little Dog: The narrator, Little Dog, is a gay Vietnamese American writer in his late twenties. He tells his story in the form of a letter to his mother. 
  • Rose: Rose, Little Dog's mother, suffers from PTSD. Though she abused her son when he was a child, Little Dog harbors no bitterness toward her.
  • Lan: Lan is Little Dog's loving maternal grandmother; she eventually dies of cancer.
  • Paul: Paul, a white American man, is Lan's estranged husband; Little Dog regards him as his grandfather. 
  • Trevor: Trevor and Little Dog fall in love as teenagers. When he is twenty-two, Trevor dies of an overdose.

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4160

Little Dog

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“Twenty-eight years old, 5ft 4in tall, 112lbs . . . handsome at exactly three angles and deadly from everywhere else,” Little Dog is a queer-identifying Vietnamese American writer who emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, as a small child with his extended family. The strange beauty of the name “Little Dog” is soon explained, giving readers access to the history of his flawed yet loving family and Little Dog’s rich, complex heritage.

What made a woman who named herself and her daughter after flowers call her grandson a dog? A woman who watches out for her own, that’s who. As you know, in the village where Lan grew up, a child, often the smallest or weakest of the flock, as I was, is named after the most despicable things: demon, ghost child, pig snout, monkey-born, buffalohead, bastard—little dog being the more tender one. Because evil spirits, roaming the land for healthy, beautiful children, would hear the name of something hideous and ghastly being called in for supper and pass over the house, sparing the child. 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. A Little Dog shield.

As exemplified in his account of his name, Little Dog’s narration reveals both his tender sense of humor and his clear-eyed, unflinching compassion for those around him. In Little Dog’s voice, all the people he loves come vividly alive for the reader. Flitting between his earliest memories and his present life as a nearly thirty-year-old man, Little Dog’s story is one of speaking the true self despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. As the epistolary novel—composed as both love letter and confession to his mother—unfolds, we learn two truths about Little Dog’s upbringing: that his mother, who escaped to America during the horrors of the Vietnam War, suffers from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and that it is Little Dog himself who often serves as both target and vent for his mother’s unmitigated rage.

The first time you hit me, I must have been four. A hand, a flash, a reckoning. My mouth a blaze of touch. . . . Then the time with the remote control. A bruised welt on my forearm I would lie about to my teachers. “I fell playing tag.” . . . The time you threw the box of Legos at my head. The hardwood dotted with blood.

Despite his mother’s physical abuse, which lasted till Little Dog was thirteen, the narrator’s tone toward his mother is not bitter. This is because Little Dog knows his mother’s backstory: to know his family’s history is an act both of survival and mercy for Little Dog. Through shared memories, Little Dog lives through his family's reality and takes forward his own. Shared memory and stories become a way for Little Dog to stay alive.

A diminutive, quiet boy, Little Dog is often subject to bullying because of his skin color and sexual orientation. Even though Little Dog himself does not understand he is gay till he is fourteen, the bullies in his school and neighborhood smell his otherness and seek him out.

Bowlcut cupped my chin and steered my head toward him. “Say my name then.” He blinked, his eyelashes, long and blond, nearly nothing, quivered. “Like your mom did last night.”
Outside, the leaves fell, fat and wet as dirty money, across the windows. I willed myself into a severe obedience and said his name.
I let their laughter enter me.
“Again,” he said.
“Kyle.”
“Louder.”
“Kyle.” My eyes still shut.
“That’s a good little bitch.”

Little Dog’s inability to cope with bullies further aggravates his mother. She believes that Little Dog’s tendency to silently take abuse makes him less of a “man.” Thus, Little Dog is constantly made to feel emasculated because of his poverty, size, skin color, and the absence of a father. What’s more, Little Dog is also initially embarrassed by his mother’s inability to speak English. In a comic but deeply sad sequence, he recalls his mother trying to unsuccessfully mime the word “oxtail” to a couple of white, male butchers who are in stitches over her performance. Though the incident washes over Little Dog as shame, it also strengthens his resolve to use English as both a tool and a weapon. In this, he enacts the immigrant’s experience of using the majority’s language to gain power in an unequal setting.

Thus, as in the case of the oxtail incident, Little Dog shows he does not view himself as a victim, despite his challenging childhood. Significantly, it is he himself who stops his mother’s abuse, simply by telling her to stop hitting him. Developing his own political consciousness, Little Dog aligns himself with workers and people of color. He also begins to notice the power imbalances around him, such as in the case of his mother—whose nails, he observes ironically, are chipped from giving pedicures to white people. Little Dog’s agency is further developed as he discovers the transfiguring power of words and art. Throughout his narrative, he quotes from various writers and establishes connections between memory, selfhood, and power.

No object is in a constant relationship with pleasure, wrote Barthes. For the writer, however, it is the mother tongue. But what if the mother tongue is stunted? What if that tongue is not only the symbol of a void, but is itself a void, what if the tongue is cut out?

When he falls in love with a white boy named Trevor, the act of submission in love empowers Little Dog even further. Through Trevor’s kindness, Little Dog is able to acknowledge his own submissive nature and understand that being physically diminutive and gentle does not have to imply powerlessness.

What do you call the animal that, finding the hunter, offers itself to be eaten? A martyr? A weakling? No, a beast gaining the rare agency to stop. Yes, the period in the sentence—it’s what makes us human, Ma, I swear. It lets us stop in order to keep going. Because submission, I soon learned, was also a kind of power.

Although Little Dog’s childhood is filled with challenges, he is also surrounded by positive role models who make him feel cherished and grounded. His maternal grandmother, Lan, and his grandfather, Paul, are two such people. The close familial ties, especially with Lan, are part of Little Dog’s Vietnamese heritage, by which the extended family subsumes and cushions the individual self. This sense of family as self is also obvious in the way Little Dog remembers Lan’s and his mother’s memories as vividly as his own. Further, though Paul is not his biological grandfather, he offers Little Dog healthy respect and a sense of belonging in the United States. This is in stark contrast to Trevor’s circumstances: his lack of larger familial support ultimately leads him to a tragic end.

As the letter draws to a close, Little Dog, his mother, and his aunt make a visit to Vietnam to scatter Lan’s ashes. In going back to Vietnam, Little Dog reestablishes his connection with his heritage and his self. Several of the novel’s metaphors—the suffering of animals, the one-way migration of monarch butterflies, and the necessarily fleeting quality of beauty—come together in the fusion of Little Dog’s personality. Lan’s stomach-turning memory of GIs in Saigon slowly consuming a live monkey’s brains now flow into Little Dog’s memory of his mother telling him he was born in the Year of the Monkey. Though there are no easy answers waiting out there for Little Dog, he has made peace with the beauty of both his own otherness and his mother’s.

You hold my hand there for a while, breathe, then take it between your fingers. “Oh, Little Dog,” you sigh. “Little Dog, Little Dog.” Monkeys, moose, cows, dogs, butterflies, buffaloes. What we would give to have the ruined lives of animals tell a human story—when our lives are in themselves the story of animals.
“Why didn’t they get me? Well, ’cause I was fast, baby. Some monkeys are so fast, they’re more like ghosts, you know? They just—poof,” you open your palm in a gesture of a small explosion, “disappear.” Without moving your head, you look at me, the way a mother looks at anything—for too long. Then, for no reason, you start to laugh.

Rose/Hong

The addressee of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is Little Dog’s mother, a fascinating, complex woman shaped by violence and love. Named “Rose” (“Hong” in Vietnamese) by her mother, Lan, she has mysterious antecedents. At the beginning of the novel, Little Dog says his mother is half-white. The presence of his grandfather, Paul, leads Little Dog to believe Rose is Paul’s daughter. But when he is nine, Rose tells him she is actually the product of Lan’s encounter with “just another American john,” one of her clients from the time she was a sex worker in Vietnam.

Before bringing me to Paul’s, you sat me down on your bed back in Hartford, took a long drag on your cigarette, and just said it. “Listen. No, look at me right here, I’m serious. Listen.” You put both hands on my shoulder, the smoke thickening around us. “He’s not your grandfather. Okay?” The words entered me as if through a vein. “Which means he’s not my father either. Got it? Look at me.”

The insistent, brutal way Rose reveals the truth to Little Dog is characteristic: she also frequently hits her son, often hard enough to draw blood. When Little Dog is bullied at school, Rose screams at him for being weak. This may make her seem like an unsympathetic character, but through Little Dog’s narration, readers also understand how Rose’s cruelty is actually a misguided act of love. By being ruthless with Little Dog, Rose is preparing him for the ruthlessness of the larger world.

As a survivor of both war and a cruel, abusive marriage, Rose has experienced life as a cold, harsh truth. Neither fully Vietnamese nor fully white, she has always existed in a state of limbo. In Vietnam she was called “ghost girl,” mocked for her light skin and its implication: that she is a product of a union with the enemy. She has been chased by spoon-bearing children, who chanted “scrape it off,” as if to scoop the whiteness out of her.

Because her schoolhouse was bombed when she was in second grade, she can barely read or write in Vietnamese. Her English is almost nonexistent: Little Dog remarks on how she pronounces spaghetti as “bahgeddy,” even after having lived in the United States for several decades. In her inability to communicate, she is the object of ridicule, which deeply discomfits Little Dog. Yet Rose has also fought hard for her family, working at a nail salon until her hands are callused in order to support her mother and son. All her contradictions make Rose a larger-than-life figure for Little Dog, who says,

I hate and love your battered hands for what they can never be.

For her, turning Little Dog cold and harsh is an act of mothering. Rose herself alludes to her double nature when she says, out of nowhere, “I’m not a monster.”

Despite her mother/monster duality, Rose can be tolerant in unexpected ways. When Little Dog comes out to her, she mocks him at first.

“Tell me,” you said from behind the palm on your chin, “are you going to wear a dress now?”
“Ma—”
“They’ll kill you,” you shook your head, “you know that.”
“Who will kill me?”
“They kill people for wearing dresses. It’s on the news. You don’t know people. You don’t know them.”

But then, Little Dog says, she counters his disclosure with one of her own. She tells him he had an “older brother,” a baby she was forced to abort by her husband and his family because they didn’t have enough to eat.

With only Novocain injected between your thighs, the nurses went in with a long metal instrument, and just “scraped my baby out of me, like seeds from a papaya.”

Rose still remembers the “baby” and her maternal suffering at losing him. She tells Little Dog she learned her lesson from the episode, only getting pregnant again when she knew she could keep Little Dog. Little Dog also implies that Rose eventually accepts his homosexuality. Further, Rose and Little Dog also share an exceptionally close relationship, with Little Dog even ordering clothes and undergarments in English for her.

For Rose, Little Dog is a window into America and the world outside her own consciousness. “What does it mean to be a writer,” she asks Little Dog, revealing how she lives a second life through her son’s experiences. Rose is also a dutiful daughter to Lan and a protective sister to the older Mai. A strong, self-made woman, Rose has a tremendous impact on Little Dog’s life, which is why his letter is addressed to her. It is implied that this not even the first letter Little Dog has written to his mother; he opens the novel with “Let me begin again.” Thus, Little Dog’s motivation in writing the letter is to “reach” Rose. His writing is a love letter and a confessional to her, underscoring his need to be understood and acknowledged by his mother.

Lan

As a young woman in Vietnam, Little Dog’s grandmother, Lan, was married off to an older man “thrice her age.” When she walked out of the abusive arranged marriage and headed home, her mother refused to admit her inside, saying,

A girl who leaves her husband is the rot of a harvest.

Abandoned by her family, the single mother to young Mai has no option but to send Mai to her sister, rent a room in Saigon, and be a sex worker for American soldiers. It is during this time that she meets twenty-three-year-old Paul; she falls in love with the “lost boy” precisely because he is not her customer. Rose is born soon after Lan marries Paul. But after Paul is called back home by his family under false pretexts, Lan faces more trauma. One such horror is when she is forced to witness soldiers slice open the skull of a muzzled, chained macaque and eat its brains while the beautiful animal is still alive. Urinating right there in abject revulsion and fear, Lan also dreads that the soldiers will shoot or molest young Rose.

“No bang bang . . . Yoo Et Aye . . . ,” Lan whispers now. “Yoo Et Aye . . .”

Though the soldiers release mother and daughter, the psychological scars from the episode and many others literally bend Lan. Little Dog notes how his grandmother’s body is a symbol of trauma.

They say that trauma affects not only the brain, but the body too, its musculature, joints, and posture. Lan’s back was perpetually bent—so much so that I could barely see her head as she stood at the sink. Only the knot of tied-back hair was visible, bobbing as she scrubbed.

Yet this tiny, bent woman is a source of enormous emotional nurturance for her daughters and grandson. She is Little Dog’s sanctuary when Rose beats him and Rose’s rescuer when she is brutally assaulted by her husband. It is not a coincidence that Little Dog often remembers Lan in conjunction with food (such as hard-boiled eggs and jasmine rice) and stories: Lan symbolizes sustenance for Little Dog.

Interestingly, Lan and Rose react to trauma in different ways. Although Lan has experienced great travails herself, she has not turned against her children or grandchildren. In contrast is violent Rose, who has once even threatened Little Dog with a knife. Lan’s and Rose’s widely differing responses to trauma are a telling testament of Lan’s kindness and generosity of spirit.

an also plays a role in the larger identity of her family as the keeper of memories. Moreover, Little Dog’s memories of her stories are clearer than those of Rose’s, indicating that Lan is more open about her life—and a born raconteur. When she dies of bone cancer in part 3 of the book, she acts as a means for Little Dog to connect with his Vietnamese past and begin knitting together his lacerated self. Little Dog, Rose, and Mai go to Vietnam to spread Lan’s ashes there. When Rose and Little Dog return to their hotel room after Lan’s ritual mourning is complete, Rose asks him,

“Where am I, Little Dog?” You’re Rose. You’re Lan. You’re Trevor. As if a name can be more than one thing, deep and wide as a night with a truck idling at its edge, and you can step right out of your cage, where I wait for you. Where, under the stars, we see at last what we’ve made of each other in the light of long-dead things—and call it good.

Trevor

The grandson of Mr. Buford, who runs the tobacco plant where Little Dog finds his first job, Trevor is one of the great loves of Little Dog’s life.

I looked up at him, a head taller, his finely boned face dirt-streaked under a metal army helmet, tipped slightly backward, as if he had just walked out from one of Lan’s stories and into my hour, somehow smiling.

The youngest two on Mr. Buford’s tobacco farm, Little Dog and Trevor become friends instantly, a connection underscored by their shared experiences of childhood trauma. One of the first things that Trevor tells Little Dog is this:

“I fucking hate my dad.” Up until then I didn’t think a white boy could hate anything about his life. I wanted to know him through and through, by that very hate. Because that’s what you give anyone who sees you, I thought. You take their hatred head-on, and you cross it, like a bridge, to face them, to enter them. “I hate my dad, too,” I said to my hands, now still and dark with chain grease. When I turned around Trevor was smiling up at the ceiling.

The boys falls in love soon after they meet. Trevor, with his room plastered with Star Wars posters and his love for sports, represents white America for Little Dog. Yet Trevor’s life is not easy, which makes Little Dog realize that there are different ways of being white, just like there are different ways of being “yellow.” Trevor is a curious mixture of macho posturing and kindness, something Little Dog soon discovers. When they make love, Trevor is insistent on playing the role of a “man,” categorical that he doesn’t want to be “like a girl,” revealing his gender biases. Unlike Little Dog, Trevor is conflicted about his sexuality and often refers to being gay as a phase. Yet Trevor’s unexpected kindness following an intimate sexual act makes Little Dog feel whole and acceptable in an unprecedented way. Moreover, sometimes Trevor reveals himself to be a deep thinker with his own unique, individualistic perspective.

“Cleopatra,” he said after a while.
“What?”
“Cleopatra saw the same sunset. Ain’t that crazy? Like everybody who was ever alive only seen one sun.” He gestured to indicate the whole town, even though we were the only people there far as the eye could see.

What ultimately drives Little Dog and Trevor apart is Trevor’s drug habit. Early in their relationship, Little Dog notes the details of Trevor’s room, littered with “empty root beer cans, the twenty-pound dumbbell, one half of a broken skateboard, the desk covered with loose change, empty gum packets, gas station receipts, weed crumbs, fentanyl patches and empty dime bags . . .” As Little Dog heads off to Brooklyn College, Trevor is left behind in a vortex of hard drugs. While Little Dog confesses that his fear of needles keeps him away from heroin, Trevor has no such qualms. In part 3 of the novel, Little Dog is headed back on the train from New York, after having received an ominous text chain that begins,

u hear abt trev?
check fb it’s about Trevor

Five years after Little Dog first met him, Trevor has died, having overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl. Little Dog is both heartbroken by Trevor’s death and reminded of his own luck in being alive: among their friends, Trevor’s fate is more norm than exception. Shaped by forces of cold, impersonal capitalism, Little Dog too could have gone Trevor’s way, but for the cushion of his extended Vietnamese family. Thus, Little Dog’s pre-capitalistic, joint family system acts as a counter to the isolated nuclear family Trevor grew up in.

Remembering Trevor and committing him to memory is an act of love for Little Dog, and also a way of introducing Trevor to his mother.

Trevor was a boy who had a name, who wanted to go to community college to study physical therapy. Trevor was alone in his room when he died, surrounded by posters of Led Zeppelin. Trevor was twenty-two. Trevor was.

Paul

Paul is Lan’s estranged second husband and Little Dog’s grandfather. A white American, Paul first met Lan while stationed in Saigon during the Vietnamese war. When the two meet, Lan is a sex worker. However, Little Dog notes that Paul was not one of Lan’s customers, which is one of the reasons Lan falls in love with the shy, gentle “hillbilly.” Their similar rural upbringing brings Lan and Paul close, and they marry soon after, beginning a life in a “decadent and disorientating city besieged by bombing raids.”

Five years younger than Lan, young Paul is tender, naive, and kind. Perhaps that is why he falls for his family’s ruse to recall him on the pretext that his mother has tuberculosis. Leaving Lan, Mai, and young Rose behind, Paul departs for America, never to return. By the time Lan and her daughters are themselves forced to emigrate to Connecticut, Paul is already married to someone else. Yet he stays in touch with his first wife, and Little Dog often visits Paul. In his whiteness and kindness, Paul represents both America and a reliable father figure for Paul.

Paul and I are in his garden harvesting fresh basil for a pesto recipe he promised to teach me. . . . He pauses from his picking, pulls his cap over his brow and lectures, with steeled intensity, on how antibiotics cause infections in commercially farmed hens, that the bees are dying and how, without them, the country would lose its entire food supply in less than three months, how you should cook olive oil on low heat because burning it would release free radicals that cause cancer.

Paul’s kindness to Little Dog is especially significant because, as it turns out, Paul is not biologically related to the boy. When he is nine, Little Dog learns that his grandmother was already pregnant when she met Paul. Yet Little Dog continues to both consider and address Paul as Grandpa, since he is the only grandfather he’ll ever have.

Little Dog’s bond with Paul is important: through it, Little Dog learns that blood is not the only binding force between families. It is noteworthy that the two most important men in Little Dog’s life—Trevor and Paul—are unrelated to him by blood. They are both also white and positive role models, which helps Little Dog form his own American and masculine identities. In an especially warm sequence, Paul makes a show of unconditional acceptance for Little Dog, giving the boy new pointers for being a man, and also representing the fleeting beauty of the novel’s title. As Paul and Little Dog are out walking Paul’s dog, they are approached by a middle-aged, white woman.

She says, looking only at Paul, “I see you finally got a dog boy. Good for you, Paul!” Paul stops, pushes his glasses up his nose only to have them slide back down. She turns to me, articulates, “Welcome. To. The. Neighbor. Hood.” Her head bobs out each syllable. I hold tight the dog’s leash and step back, offering a smile. “No,” Paul says, his hand raised awkwardly, as if waving away cobwebs. “This is my grandson.” He lets the word hover between us all, until it feels solid, an instrument, then repeats it, nodding, to himself or the woman I can’t say. “My grandson.” Without a beat the woman smiles. Too widely. “Please remember that.”
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