On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: An Invitation to Awaken Emotion Through Memory


Sven Larsen | The Ticker

Ana Duran

“I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because,” Little Dog, the narrator, writes. “But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence — I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and the prey.”

The book resembles the narrator’s constant fleeting memories. He jumps from memory to memory as if he is scared to miss out on what he deems important and significant enough to confess to his mother. 

Filled with constant loops and whirlwinds of various emotions, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a coming-of-age story that makes one feel as if they actually with Little Dog witnessing each detailed account. 

Vuong uses words to paint memorable and dynamic scenes, such as when he writes: “The shots are held by arms that belong to men who will soon cut open the macaque’s skull with a scalpel, open it like a lid jar. The men will take turns consuming the brain, dipped in alcohol or swallowed with cloves of garlic from a porcelain plate, all while the monkey kicks beneath them.” These memories are beautifully written and yet so hauntedly depicted.

Vuong’s previous poetic experience isn’t shy in his novel; in fact, it shines through and transforms the text into something that feels decadent. In the first part of the novel, he uses repetition of the words “the time” at the beginning of paragraphs for three consecutive pages, playing out as if he were creating stanzas in a poem. Along with repetition he writes in lines reminiscent of sonnets:

“As a rule, I miss you/

As a rule, ‘little’ is always smaller than ‘small’. Don’t ask me why./

I’m sorry I don’t call enough.” 

Powerful sentences litter the novel from cover to cover, leaving the reader gobsmacked and splendidly heartbroken. 

Sentences such as, “You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it has nothing” and “I’m writing you because I’m not the one leaving, but the one coming back, empty-handed” evoke every emotion in the body all at once.

Though the writing seems to be what really helps bring the book to life, it can easily cause confusion and make it a bit challenging to get through. The use of different variations of the word “you” throughout the book can easily confuse readers due to the structure of the book.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous can be sprinkled with confusion and boredom towards the beginning, with the main focus on the Vietnam War and Little Dog’s mother and grandmother’s background, but the novel thankfully changes gears midway.

The book doesn’t shy away from dealing with heavy topics and revealing how the narrator deals with them.  His mother is a product of the Vietnam War, which leads her to act in ways that may be considered intense. She constantly hit him when he was young as a form of discipline. She is dealing with PTSD, which can cause her to lash out in harsh ways; Vuong uses this to his advantage by creating intense moments of recollection such as “The time with the kitchen knife — the one you picked up, then put down, shaking, quietly, ‘Get out. Get Out.’ And I ran out the door, down the black summer streets. I ran until I forgot I was ten, until my heartbeat was all I could hear of for myself.”

He also dives headfirst into the opioid crisis, a topic that is still fresh today, detailing his usage f drugs such as weed and cocaine but also his boyfriend’s usage of hard drugs like heroin and its effects in the long run. 

Much like André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name, Vuong shares the intimate experience of exploring homosexuality. He faces this exploration of love and lust with a vulnerability that leaves one rooting for the relationship to flourish. It is also comparable to Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, with both novels exploring the main character’s past and present lives as well as how they deal with loneliness.

Both books use songs — “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles and “Many Men (Wish Death)” by 50 Cent, respectively — to signify someone and place emphasis on the power the song has between two people. 

Towards the end of the book, the narrator says “To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.” Tthat is a perfect way to sum up the entirety of this book: gorgeous enough to be hunted by those who seek a moment of beauty.