“Akin to being emotionally flayed” – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong is an award winning poet and this is his first novel. I expected gorgeous prose. What I came away with was akin to being emotionally flayed.

Written in the form of a letter from a son to his mother, the story is told in fragments jumping around in time and place. The key characters are three generations of Vietnamese immigrants now living in America. They are Little Dog – given a ‘despicable’ name because evil spirits will leave something worthless untouched – his mother and grandmother. There are men on the periphery, most of them demonstrating a propensity for violence. Poverty and violence permeate each page.

“freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey”

In writing his letter, Little Dog, now grown, is remembering his childhood. He was regularly beaten by his mother who was exhausted by her efforts to support her family through her poorly paid job at a nail salon. She in turn had been beaten by her husband, ending up in hospital before he was imprisoned. His attempt to bribe the police personnel called to deal with the incident, which would have been the end of the matter in Vietnam, is to no avail.

Little Dog correlates love with pain.

Throughout the letter are tales of cruelties man inflicts on animals. A monkey brain is spooned from a living creature in an attempt to improve virility. The raising of calves for veal is detailed.

Men are also cruel to each other. Little Dog’s mother suffers from PTSD as a result of her experience of war in her home country. Her father is an American GI.

As a teenager, Little Dog engages in sexual activity in which he encourages and submits to practices that physically hurt. The graphic imagery detailing these episodes verges on the pornographic – not something I enjoy reading.

Alcoholism and other drug taking is commonplace amongst peers and parents. These practices cause several deaths.

At seventeen, Little Dog comes out to his mother. She responds with a revelation from her past, another terrible experience she was forced to bear.

“We were exchanging truths, I realized, which is to say, we were cutting one another.”

The writing is visceral although in places felt overblown, perhaps because there was little let up in the horror of the fragments and their vivid depiction. The wounds that scar each family member run deep and are excavated from different angles, piercing and then piercing again. This emotional legacy infects across generations. Little Dog observes beauty and, with it, seemingly inevitable death.

Any Cop?: A harrowing depiction of a life containing much intimate and disturbing detail. Although not always easy to read, it is a powerful portrayal.

 

Jackie Law

 

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