By Ocean Vuong
June 4, 2019 • 246 pages
Is it hyperbole to say that Ocean Vuong is the greatest writer of our time? It feels like a fact.
I don’t want to give too much away so I won’t over explain what this story is about. On Earth is a “letter” from a first generation son to his immigrant mother who cannot read. Our narrator is “Little Dog.” It’s a demeaning name to any other person but in Vietnamese culture, “to love something is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched— and a live.” This is a perfect example of the narrative as a whole: finding the beautiful in the ugly and the ugly in the beautiful.
Like many firsthand accounts from first generation sons and daughters, the struggle of assimilation is a field that fills and empties with the loss of one language and the lessons of another. Their lives are a balancing act between love and violence, a mosaic of trauma and healing and, most of all, the pieces and moments that fall in between those spaces.
“I got what I wanted—a boy swimming toward me. Except I was no shore, Ma. I was driftwood trying to remember what I had broken from to get here.”
The star of this novel is Vuong’s use of language. Apart from being about Otherness, this story is also about language. The irony is that it both critiques and applauds it.
“What if the body, at its best, is only a longing for body? The blood racing to the heart only to be sent back out, filling the routes, the once empty channels, the miles it takes to take us toward each other. Why did I feel more myself while reaching for him, my hand midair, than I did having touched him.”
At worst, some might admonish such lyrical, “pretentious” writing. Might taut Hemingway or Carver as capstones of a literary obelisk; but while minimalist language has its space, so does language that is abundant and imposing.
On Earth is visceral and haunting. Every thought has a purpose and a resounding note. Little Dog’s relationship with his mother, with other men, with America and English is poetic but not overly embellished. Every movement of his words strike and flow with intention.
Vuong has claimed multiple times that English is a violent language (“You’re killing it!” or “We murdered that” as prime examples.) And how does one approach a violent language if not by slowing down the harsh and jolting stops of single syllable words and one line summaries with deliberate movement and harmonic syntax? Yet another attempt at balance– at grace in a violent world.
“All this time I told myself we were born from war- but I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty. Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence- but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.”
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