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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,490 words.)