Novel Review – “On Earth We‘re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong is not a new name for me. Back in 2016, I stumbled over his poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds while browsing NPR’s Book Concierge on the search for holiday reads. What caught my attention at the time was the name (what better word to encapsulate depth and uncertainty than ocean) but also the cover which displays two women sitting at the sides of a small boy in a faded and slightly ominous photograph. The poetry of the US-Vietnamese poet struck me. Vuong’s vivid, yet enigmatic pieces dealing with family, cultural heritage and same-sex desire left a dent in the back my mind, deep enough that I was excited to hear that he had released his debut novel this year.

My expectations were not disappointed: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a fragmented yet beautiful work, the novel’s 240 pages feeling not long at all but condensed and sharp. Plot-wise it is a difficult book to pin down, however. As the falling leaves on the cover of the radiant UK edition suggest, Vuong’s novel deals a lot with transformation and loss. Written as a letter from a young man named Little Dog to his mother, the novel invites to be read autobiographically as the narrator shares many traits with Vuong himself, including his childhood immigration from Saigon to Hartford, Connecticut.

There are many different narrative strands in the book, from the experiences of Little Dog’s grandmother in South Vietnam during the war to the tragic story of the narrator’s drug addicted first love Trevor, who lives with his father in a trailer on the outskirts of town. What binds many of these strands together is that they revolve around different types of trauma and their effect on the body. The physical and mental wounds inflicted during the Vietnam war have painful repercussions in Little Dog’s life, from the schizophrenia and flashbacks of his grandmother to the violence and frustration of his mother.

The novel succeeds in conveying the state of loss and disorientation brought by the family’s move to the US, a foreign country both in culture and language. In one of the book’s many memorable passages, Vuong’s mother is humiliated in front of her son as she tries to buy oxtail for a Vietnamese dish at a local mall. Gasping for words, first in Vietnamese then in broken French, the butcher laughs at her final attempt to communicate with gestures. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous treats the loss of language as a particularly painful wound, a perhaps irreparable blank space between severed connections, a void experienced only as phantom pain.

Many of the novel’s passages feel like memories in the sense that they are carried by a feeling of urgency and visceral sensory experience. This is especially true for the relationship between Little Dog and Trevor which takes up a considerable portion of the book. As the narrator visits Trevor in his trailer, he describes his yearning for the taste of his lover, the flavor of his tongue, the salt around his neck and scent of his fingers. Vuong’s language manages to feel both precise while repeatedly blooming into poetic imagery. In recounting the experience of being bullied during bus rides to school for example, Little Dog remembers pressing his head into the seat in front of him, looking at his electric sneakers which “erupted with silent flares: the world’s smallest ambulances, going nowhere.”

The novel avoids the pitfalls of devolving into a static assortment of such images through its elaborate structure. Vuong skillfully interweaves and juxtaposes different narrative strands, switching from past to present and back in a way that feels like it is creating a meaningful rhythm. At times, the experimental structure of the novel threatens to dissolve the narrative altogether, especially in the middle section where the prose breaks into fragmented sentences that somehow seem unfinished. But it all comes back together in the end, mirroring through its fractured form both the characters and perhaps even the state of the country as a whole.  On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a beautiful novel that I will surely come back to in the years to come.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
Ocean Vuong
2019
Penguin - Vintage

Review – “Les Têtards” by Pascal Matthey

During a recent family vacation in Brussels, I snuck off to discover some of the comic book stores in the area. Admittedly, I didn’t get further than Multi-BD, a shop on one of Brussel’s main streets with an incredible assortment of French and English independent comics (including all the R. Crumb you can think of). Faced with an impossible choice, I stuck to a shelf of local flavor and picked two books by l’employé du Moi, an independent publisher I had heard about before that is based in Brussels, Belgium.

Among the two books I chose is Les Têtards, a beautiful wordless comic by Swiss-born artist Pascal Matthey. It’s a small book, about half the size of a sheet of paper, with a minimal yet elegant hardcover binding that features the title in green letters superimposed over a drawing of frog-shaped gummy bears. This type of candy, also found in kiosks on every German street corner, reminded me of my childhood and this association is not far off: Les Têtards is a drawn collection of childhood memories, presented in short wordless episodes.

What immediately struck me about the comic are its delicately shaded pencil drawings. Apart from the characters who follow a more cartoony aesthetic, everything is rendered in detail and the still life drawings and landscapes that dominate the book are beautiful to look at. The comic consists of different interwoven episodes that each center on moments of the protagonist’s childhood. These penciled snapshots of time range from the mundane to the extraordinary, there are memories of family vacations in the mountains, of falling in love for the first time, of discovering sexuality but also of marveling at a snail on the roadside. At times, the memories are bound together by a shared theme, specifically the tadpoles that give the comic its name. The child protagonist is fascinated by the metamorphoses of the tiny embryos into frogs while he himself is steadily growing, slowly shifting from childhood into adolescence.

At other times, the episodes of Les Têtards are more structured by means of association. One memory leads to the next and the single images morph into each other. While the layout of the book sticks mostly to a calm 6 panel composition, Matthey skillfully finds a rhythm to his stories by juxtaposing still images that share visual similarities, comparable to match cuts in film. In one of my favorite sequences of this type, the spawn of frogs transforms into a soccer ball and later into marbles. At their best, such sequences not only evoke the memory itself but also the act of remembering.

By taking its time, Les Têtards finds beauty in silent images and succeeds in conjuring up the intensity and wonder of childhood experience. The memories that stay with us over the years, that get carried over the tide of forgetting are significant in their own right and Matthey’s thoughtful, meditative comic honors this act of remembering.

Les Têtards
Pascal Matthey
2016
l’employé du Moi (Belgium)