Stuart Walton reviews multi-award winning poet Ocean Vuong’s autobiographical debut novel, finding a writer dexterously at home in both elements.
Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Jonathan Cape, 2019), 242pp.
The literature of exile was one of the defining aesthetic practices of the past century. Born out of the massive displacements of peoples that took place in the period leading up to and including the Second World War, it articulated a clearer and more direct account of the experience of alienation in the modern world than the burgeoning literature of bureaucratisation and its discontents, which emerged alongside it in the postwar period. The voices of the uprooted have since been joined, however, by the variegated accents of those in the second and third generations of exiled families. If the Jewish and Irish diasporic literatures were always about assimilation and embattlement in the milieux far from home in which their authors found themselves, the descendants of the exiled have at least two separate contexts of estrangement to negotiate.
Ocean Vuong’s family was driven out of Vietnam when he was an infant, as a result of the regime revoking his mother’s permit to work because of her mixed racial origin (she is the offspring of a Vietnamese mother and an American father, a GI stationed in the country during the hostilities in the 1960s). After nearly two years in a refugee camp in the Philippines, they were granted asylum in the United States, moving to Hartford, Connecticut when Vuong was two. He was brought up by his mother, her sister and his grandmother, his father having long since absconded from the family.
Where might the cultural identifications and allegiances in such a life be drawn? The binomial designation that American politesse accords to people of mixed heritage – Vietnamese-American, in Vuong’s case – intending to respect both halves of an individual’s identity, risks emphasising their unmeldable separateness:you are one and the other at the same time, more than the hoped-for amalgam of both. To the state of cultural transplantation was added the sexual otherness of being gay, an orientation Vuong subjectively assumed relatively early, and which only magnifies the sense of unbelonging when social normativity, in its worst temper, seeks to tutor what it sees as the deviant body through physical and verbal violence.
Following a much-garlanded poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2017), which revealed Vuong to have a finely tuned lyrical and philosophical tone, he has now written a debut novel. It draws extensively on the gathering construction of his own identity during a troubled adolescence, taking the form of an epistolary address to his mother, made the more poignant for the fact that Vuong is the first member of his family to become fully literate. There are things in it that, conventionally speaking, no mother should be asked to read, but then she might not read them for herself. The result is an ethical high-wire act, in which the reader feels almost indecently privileged to know aspects of the writer’s life that he is improbably trying to disclose to his nearest and dearest.
Death and the moods cast by its evening shadow punctuate the novel with diurnal insistence. The novelist’s grandmother dies at length on the floor at home, in the agonies of a late-stage bone cancer that has eaten away her hip joints, attended by her daughter and grandson, whose tiny acts of relief to her only speak of the helplessness of all presiding over terminal illness. His first lover, a farm boy called Trevor who is a co-worker on the tobacco plantation where the teenage author is employed, dies of addiction to opioid pharmaceuticals, his death repeatedly rehearsed, in the sequence of classic dependency, before the final extinguishing. In a beautifully handled scene in a barn in which the narrator, nicknamed Little Dog by his family, accepts penetrative sex from Trevor for the first time, the couple is showered fitfully by dying moths falling from the rafters, poisoned as they try to feed on the pesticide-sprayed tobacco leaves, the same leaves that have poisoned the lives of the workers with economic exploitation. Recurring images of the endangered monarch butterfly, and of herds of stampeding buffalo rushing off a cliff to their doom like the Gadarene swine, with no seeming instinct for self-preservation, add to the air of bitter mortality.
Despite these saturnine thematics, however, the book is saved from a monochrome tone of gloom by the diaphanous beauty of much of the writing. Vuong is an innate and powerfully convincing stylist, who has absorbed much of the melodic register of the kind of American literature – early Bellow, De Lillo, Updike – that isn’t much in fashion in the era of infantile fantasy worlds and the interior monoblog. There are poetic flights that arrest expectations by not tracing the expected trajectory, much as Little Dog notices of experience itself when he remarks, ‘how deep a season opens when you refuse to follow the days out of it’. For all that its recurring preoccupation is with the soul’s dark night, his disinclination to take the obvious path is what gives the book its freshly dewed early-morning glisten..
Those who have ever been victimised will perhaps recognise the conflicted delicacy with which Little Dog surrenders to a masochistic passivity in his sexual relations with Trevor. The survival strategy of the fucked-up so often consists in choosing to be fucked up, reappropriating a subjective destitution in the enactment of precisely that state, orchestrating it rather than suffering it. How inapt the brutal lover’s tender post-coital apologetics then seem. ‘Sometimes being offered tenderness feels like the very proof that you’ve been ruined.’ An accommodation with the lack in desire has to make desire itself conformable to it. ‘That’s what I wanted,’ Little Dog declares, ‘not merely the body, desirable as it was, but its will to grow into the very world that rejects its hunger.’ Another psychological language might call this identifying with the aggressor. ‘Love you will find,’ wrote the Frankfurt thinker Theodor Adorno, ‘only where you may show yourself weak without provoking strength.’
Warned off the explicitly political mode in his creative writing class on the spurious grounds that taking a side is corrosive to human community, whereas great literature should unify the human, a spasm of nefarious ideology by which the culture industry hopes to recruit its best practitioners to the general duty of social amnesia, the writer throws another light on the political by the fearless display of his own social status. It is an aspect of their being that can’t help but obtrude in the lives of a displaced family living in a host country that has generously offered to atone for the displacement it helped bring about. The mood is not angry, though, at least not in the helpless sense. ‘Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence,’ the narrator pleads in an address towards the end, refusing the role of victimhood that society all too readily accommodates, asking us to note instead that ‘violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.’
Vuong’s text is rich in what might be characterised as a kind of literary atonality, akin to the effect of the monochord, fretless and hammered string instruments of traditional Vietnamese music. Sentences frequently fail to resolve themselves into the diatonic form of a western philosophical proposition. The eye searching for ready epigrams will rarely find them. There are also – and one makes this point with due humility – moments of productive apparent malapropism that give a semantic twist, unintended or not, to their contexts. The Asian macaque is the most hunted primate in southeast Asia because of its ‘punitive size’, a diminutive that has expanded into something more threatening by the time it hits the page. Trevor, glimpsed in physiognomic detail as he introduces himself to Little Dog for the first time, has ‘grey irises smattered with bits of brown and ember’. Or was it umber? But then ember, with its connotation of fading glow, is better. Even in America, trees have boughs rather than ‘bows’, but the twin mental images of the forward parts of a ship and of graceful prostration complicate the inner picture.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is very evidently drawn from its author’s own life experience, the mode that lends confidence to all our first efforts. It may well be that his next will need to be a purely imaginative work of narrative art if Vuong is to sustain the fertile promise of which his poems and this prose work give graphic evidence. That he is equally, dexterously, at home in both elements is not to be doubted. Here he is, caught in the push and pull of family and of sexual longing, tragedy and ecstasy, in one of the poems, ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’:
… Show me how ruin makes a home
out of hip bones. O mother,
O minute hand, teach me
how to hold a man the way thirst
holds water. Let every river envy
our mouths. Let every kiss hit the body
like a season. Where apples thunder
the earth with red hooves. & I am your son.
Stuart Walton is the author of many books including Intoxicology: A Cultural History of Drink and Drugs, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling, Introducing Theodor Adorno, a monograph on the chilli pepper, The Devil’s Dinner, and a novel, The First Day in Paradise. He lives in southwest England.