On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: Best Title of the Year For Sure

Ocean Vuong, renowned poet, born in Saigon and now living in Massachusetts, blazed onto the fiction scene with this 2019 debut. The book is an epistolary novel (a letter), directed at the narrator’s mom. Both the protagonist’s mom and grandma came to the U.S. on the heels of the Vietnam War, settling in Hartford, Connecticut. And life happened. History haunts their existences. They try to economically survive. They try to navigate their ghosts. They are, these three, more or less, anchorless in the American northeast. Part coming-of-age story, part prose-poetry, part letter-that-will-never-be-read, readers will likely drop open their mouths more than once.

Jennifer: Okay, so more tools for making sense of this book. The boy is only known as Little Dog. The mom is Rose, and she works in a nail salon—and she’s abusive to her kid. Rose’s mom is Lan. She was a good grandma; however, she’s aging and she’s nearing the end of her life. A tad dementia-ish.

And the first thing I need to say is that I love long, dramatic titles — and I adore this title. What do you think about that, and the book as a whole?

Lara: I love long dramatic titles too, and this one is perfection. I will also say this book is perfection. It’s a dreamy cocktail that starts with some solid fiction with a triple shot of literariness and some of it went over my head and I don’t even care. I mean, how can you when you come across a passage like this?

“It’s no accident, Ma, that the comma resembles a fetus — that curve of continuation. We were all once inside our mothers, saying with our entire curved and silent selves, more, more, more. I want to insist that our being alive is beautiful enough to be worthy of replication. And so what? So what if all I ever made of my life was more of it.”

Jennifer: It’s a beautiful book. Each sentence is actually like the above — carefully crafted. I mean, yeah, a poet wrote this book.

I can’t help but give examples.

“It’s not fair that laughter is trapped inside slaughter.”


“They have an industry. They make millions. Did you know people get rich off of sadness? I want to meet the millionaire of American sadness. I want to look him in the eye, shake his hand, and say, ‘It’s been an honor to serve my country.’”

He’s a poet-monster, Lara. Any “issues” with the book?

Lara: As I said earlier, some of the book went over my head. But not in a way that made me feel dumb, just a little lost, but the beauty kept me reading. I think Vuong does a really good job with Little Dog and his coming-of-age dealing with so many heavy things: race, class, identity, isolation, belonging, a desire for love and connection.

“ ‘Hey.’ The jowlboy leaned in, his vinegar mouth on the side of my cheek. ‘Don’t you speak English?’ He grabbed my shoulder and spun me to face him. ‘Look at me when I am talking to you.’

He was only nine but had already mastered the dialect of damaged American fathers.”

He also paints a painfully realistic picture of a mother who loves her son and struggles with post-traumatic stress and her cruel tendencies. She is both mother and abuser. Complex and human. Perfectly imperfect.

What are you concerns, if any?

Jennifer: Well, this first one isn’t really a concern—just an acknowledgment. I—as you’ve noted—position myself either strategically or stupidly among the highfalutin, uber-literary crowd. Like, I’m all Shakespeare-slash-Elena-Ferrante-slash-Hemingway-slash-Colson-Whitehead. Like, taking a break means, maybe (MAYBE) Margaret-Atwood. Boy, this all smacks of sheer snobbery. I guess what I’m saying is that I like my prose to be, um, like Great British Baking Show-quality. And what we might want to acknowledge here is that this book fits right in. It’s perfectly upper-crusty. If you catch my drift . . .

Sometimes, I felt like I didn’t get stuff. I felt inadequate in my poetry-chops. I was, like, Wha????

Also, I’d be re-miss if I didn’t let our readers know that there’s sex stuff. I felt it was a bit much, though you didn’t. I’m never a fan of graphic stuff. This is firmly in the literary category, but I could’ve done without it.

Lara: HA! You have met your match! I love it. There is sex stuff, and he handled it very, very well. But you do know what’s going on, if you know what I mean.

Jennifer: You’re gonna know what we mean.

Lara: I’ve heard people say of this book and books like it, that they kept waiting for stuff to happen. I’m pretty dumbfounded by that comment. So. Very. Much. Happens. And we would spoil it if we went into too much detail. Suffice it to say it’s so relevant. So necessary. As one character says after a devastating loss:

“I’m broken in two…” to which Little Dog reflects, “Into—yes, that’s more like it. As in, Now I’m broken into.”

This book will leave you broken into.

Jennifer: Yeah, I’m dumbfounded by the reading crowd that desires plot over-and-above the sheer finery of language and character development. I mean, not to sound cuckoo, but every line was like a delicate baby bird in a nest. Oh man. What does that even mean?

One more great passage. You know, I’m not really a high-maintenance girl (just high-maintenance in my books). I do, very periodically, get pedicures. And, yeah, I think I’m going to salons like the ones referenced here. I’m not sure, though, I’ll ever be cavalier about the experience after passages like this:

“It’s a makeshift classroom where we arrive, fresh off the boat, the plane, the depths, hoping the salon would be a temporary stop—until we get on our feet, or rather, until our jaws soften around English syllables—bend over workbooks at manicure desks, finishing homework for nighttime ESL classes that cost a quarter of our wages. I won’t stay here long, we might say. I’ll get a real job soon. . . Having nothing, it becomes its own contract, a testimony of presence. We will do this for decades—until our lungs can no longer breathe without swelling, our livers hardening with chemicals . . . A new immigrant, within two years, will come to know that the salon is, in the end, a place where dreams become the calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones—with or without citizenship—aching, toxic, and underpaid.”


This, then, is a great American novel. When people identify Great American Novels, stories like these should be included. (But let’s cut back on the sex, friend!)

Lara, what else have you been reading?

Lara: Ahhh! It is a great American novel. As for your question, not as much as I would like to. I just started The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver on audio. I am also listening to Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas. In paper form, I am starting Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healy, and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed.

What about you?

Jennifer: Well, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments in about ten minutes. I said some stuff here – scroll down. I loved loved loved Leslie Jamison’s Make It Scream, Make It Burn. I finally read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and it’s a pure gem. Now, I need to re-watch the movie. I also bought Prince’s new book, but I doubt I’ll get to it this year.

Lara: There’s a lot I wanted to get to this year and didn’t. Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House and Mary Beth Keane’s Ask, Again, Yes spring to mind. Others are floating around my brain in a mental TBR. Still, we’ve both read a lot this year and a lot of good stuff. We should be proud of ourselves.

Next Up!

December is around the corner and that means it’s time for our year in review. As we fight about how soon/late to post the column (our ongoing critical debate), we wish all you readers—and all 32 of you—safe and happy holidays.


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Want to read more from Jennifer? Check her out at www.jenniferspiegel.com and her latest book: And So We Die, Having First SleptYou can get it on Amazon right here

Want to see what Lara is up to? You can follow her on Instagram: @OneLitChick