On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
by Ocean Vuong
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Sorry, I'm not on the bandwagon with this one. Before I get into the many reasons why not, let me quote Hemingway, an author Ocean Vuong should add to his list:
"If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written."
Although the first third of the book had some decent stuff in it, on the whole, I hated this book because he borrows his sorrow. The most truly affecting scenes in the book aren't his-- they're his mother's and grandmother's. He is poetic to a fault. If he were on his way to the drug store and you asked this guy where he's going he'd say, "My feet are boats on a river in Viet Nam. The ground beneath the cement is water weeds seeking to keep me where I am, while the boats that are my feet, with their pointed prows, float me to the place of American peace, the drug store where Trev gets his Oxy and I buy, with my green (like water weeds) American dollars, a candy that reminds me of childhood miseries and so I whisper to it about the monarchs." All the bleak suffering this American college kid takes us through rings second-hand, to my ear. He's like, "Look how well I can write, my professors love me, let me drum up some pathos and toss in a fair bit of animal cruelty to make my scenes raw and real, when in fact, I'm messing with your emotions."
If he had written a novel about his mother and grandmother and Viet Nam and being an immigrant here, he'd have done better. But no, it's about him and his largely unearned suffering. If you want to read about genuine first hand suffering, read Lucy Grealy's "Autobiography of a Face". If you want to read about racism, read Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man." If you want to read about Asian experience, and being gay in a repressive society, read Anchee Min's "Red Azalea." And there's another thing. Vuong's love angle with Trevor isn't love, and he goes out of his way to show that it isn't. The physical sex is mechanical to my ear. Also, it just is all of a sudden happening. One minute they're hanging around the tobacco barn and the next they're going at it, and Vuong describes it all in extremely unpleasant and joyless detail. Then, as if war, animal cruelty, prostitution, racism, domestic abuse and gay issues aren't enough, then he starts in with the many drug overdoses in Hartford. Yet, somehow, despite coming up hard (hey, he listened to rap with Trevor!) he has managed to become the darling of the literary world with his overblown, overwritten, self-conscious bullshit poetic writing. Come back when you've earned all this sorrow, Vuong, and read some Hemingway in the meantime. Real, earned suffering is usually understated, and all the more powerful for that. Run along, kid.
Final note of warning: about forty pages in, there is a horrific scene of animal cruelty that I just never needed to have in my head. It's reason enough to skip this book right there. Vuong, throughout, doesn't report things unflinchingly for a higher purpose--it's just miseryporn described at excruciating length in sometimes almost laughable "poetry."
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