WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a man? This is a question I struggled with as a child, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in the Midwest. The models of manhood I read about in novels, and saw on television and in the movies, weren’t all that different from what’s on offer today, although there does seem to be a little more ethnic and racial diversity and a greater range of roles that men can take, than before. Still, the old models for cisgender heterosexual men live on in all their irredeemable toxicity. Don’t rely on others, repress your emotions, strive for mastery and dominance, think of women as objects of your enjoyment. There is in such ideas a hidden gender melancholy, to borrow an idea from the philosopher Judith Butler, which manifests itself for cisgender heterosexual men in the ways in which they have been taught to be more or less ashamed of their own bodies. The message I received was that men are supposed to be the ones who look, and not to have bodies that are looked at — and certainly not to have bodies that are looked at by other men. This is the flip-side of the way cisgender women have been messaged.
Desiring but not desired: this is actually a pretty good description of the way I often felt as a teenager, and it led me to feel frequently like someone who could not be valued as a sexual being. Even now, to admit that women and some men desired me sexually feels somehow wrong, or maybe dangerous, to admit. Maybe this is because being desired also means being vulnerable. To be desired is to have a body that can be assessed and discussed and dismissed. It is to have a body that can turn out not to be desirable — or at least a body that has trouble finding others to desire it. It is also to have a body that can become, if it isn’t already, less able and more dependent on others for its care.
It was only when I went to college and graduate school, with exposure to queer theory and to representations of gay men, that I began to think it was possible to be a part of a different sexual economy while remaining a heterosexual man. It became possible to be a man and to possess a body that others found beautiful, because it was in these works that I first found such a possibility explicitly discussed. There was a relief in this, and a sense of power I hadn’t ever felt before. But more importantly, it allowed me to have a different relationship to my own body, marked as it is not only by gender but also by race, and to see it as desirable because others saw it as desirable. I don’t think I’m stretching too much to say that cisgender heterosexual men find such a sexual economy forbidding because it threatens their identity as heterosexual men, but it may also be the case that exposure to it might allow them the opportunity to renegotiate how they value their own masculinity, and perhaps might lead to less toxic models of manhood.
This is a long-winded way to say that where I thought Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous most shines is in its depiction of Little Dog’s relationship to Trevor. Little Dog is the name of the Vietnamese-American narrator, who is writing a long letter to his mother. In this letter, about midway through the novel, the narrator meets Trevor while working on a tobacco farm one summer. Trevor is a troubled and sensitive young white man, and when they meet there is instant sexual attraction. Eventually, they act on this attraction, and the language becomes deliberately explicit: “The first time we fucked, we didn’t fuck at all”; “We did what we had seen in porn”; “He fucked my hand until he shuddered, wet, like the muffler of a truck starting up in the rain.” In these passages, the narrator is always careful to let the reader know that the sex feels good. It also feels a little dirty. The pleasure is mixed with some shame. How could it not in a culture like ours, that’s so homophobic as well as racist and sexist?
Nevertheless, when Little Dog meets Trevor, a transformation occurs that changes the whole feel of the novel. Little Dog looks at himself in the mirror, seeing for the first time a body he can love. “It was an accident, my beauty revealed to me,” he writes, “I was day-dreaming, thinking about the day before, of Trevor and me behind the Chevy, and had stood in the tub with the water off for too long. By the time I stepped out, the boy before the mirror stunned me.” This felt to me the most wonderful moment in the novel: the sudden metamorphosis of the body, from an object of embarrassment seeking anonymity to something that reveals itself as worthy of desire. This moment makes all the rest, including Trevor’s eventual addiction to opioids and his early death, bearable.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is the novel I most looked forward to reading in 2019. The title is so provocative, the story so obviously compelling, and the author already famous for his craft, how could I not want to read it? I had greatly enjoyed reading Ocean Vuong’s award-winning collection of poems, Night Sky with Exit Wounds; the poems in his collection play energetically with form and, while often difficult to decipher, reward effort. “Seventh Circle of Earth” is a salient example. It consists of the numbers one through seven strategically placed on two empty pages so that they seem to be circling each other like stars in the sky. Each number corresponds to a footnote, which contains the text of the poem. An epigraph refers to the murder of a gay couple in Dallas in 2011.
Maybe you might think this form is more of a gimmick than an actual poem. I wondered about that possibility as well, but the more space I gave it, the more inventive and profound it became. The empty page seems meant to remind the reader of loss (the death of the two men by deliberate fire), of the ways in which the orderliness of numbers hides more complex relationships, and the unspoken words when violence is reported in the news. The poem could be eliciting such meanings, while a reader may only see numbers on a page and footnotes that don’t encourage scrutiny.
More than this poem, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous prompts readers to take the more difficult path. In addition to telling Little Dog’s story, it tells the story of his grandmother Lan, who runs away from an arranged marriage during the war in Vietnam and ends up a sex worker. She marries a white American soldier, but the child she has is probably not his. The child is Little Dog’s mother Hong, or Rose (as she’s more often called in the novel), whose story the narrator also tells. Rose marries an abusive man and eventually separates from him. A single parent, she lives with her son and mother in Hartford. They are refugees who don’t speak much English, and Rose is just barely able, as a nail salon worker, to keep her small family financially afloat. Both Rose and Lan have flashbacks that leave the characters, and the reader, confused. Little Dog is small, sensitive, and gay, making him more of a target of violence — Rose occasionally hits him, especially when he is young.
All of this is revealed in the first third of the novel, and it’s as hard to read about as you’d imagine. What helped keep me going, however, is how the language lifts the reader out of the particulars of the story, to turn attention to an intensity of feeling that suffuses Little Dog’s sense of the world he inhabits. Take, for instance, the description of Lan with her infant trying to cross a checkpoint in Vietnam. It’s never clear where she is trying to go, or where the checkpoint is designed to keep some people from going to, but the moment is full of threat: “A woman, a girl, a gun. This is an old story, one anyone can tell. A trope in a movie you can walk away from if it weren’t already here, already written down.” The novel also invites the reader to see the situation differently:
It is a beautiful country depending on where you look. Depending on where you look you might see the woman waiting on the shoulder of the dirt road, an infant girl wrapped in a sky-blue shawl in her arms. She rocks her hips, cups the girl’s head. You were born, the woman thinks, because no one was coming. Because no one else is coming, she begins to hum.
The story is never just told, but rather the telling interrogates how it is being told. Viewpoints are actively foregrounded, and movies act as points of reference.
By the end of the novel, habituated ways of telling a story (“one anyone can tell”) shifts: “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 rather, that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.” To illustrate this point, the whole novel insists on immersing the reader in one beautiful image after another, and even alludes to Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and Being Just to foreground the philosophical implications of beauty itself. Little Dog summarizes Scarry’s argument:
I read that beauty has historically demanded replication. We make more of anything we find aesthetically pleasing, whether it’s a vase, a painting, a chalice, a poem. We reproduce it in order to keep it, extend it through space and time. To gaze at what pleases […] is, in itself, replication — the image prolonged in the eye, making more of it, making it last. Staring into the mirror, I replicate myself into a future where I might not exist.
As beautiful as the prose is throughout, however, the first third of this novel requires a lot of patience. The language is often figurative, slowing down the reading experience. At such moments, I wanted the narrator to speak more directly. There is also a lot of information, but it comes to the reader in a jumble, out of sequence, as remembrances after the fact, recounting one act of humiliation after another — of being physically abused, of being insulted and bullied, of finding even the act of going to the grocery store a painful exercise in frustration and abjection. The contrast between beautiful prose and the novel’s narrative of humiliation is often jarring. During such moments, my disagreement with Scarry’s argument came to mind, for I’ve long thought the argument values beauty too much as an obvious good when it can also be a distraction or a palliative, when something uglier or more discordant would be more appropriate.
There’s nothing obvious about the beauty of Vuong’s novel, however. It is a beauty that asserts itself against vociferous claims to the contrary and demands a different way of looking and valuing what is seen. The novel asks readers to pay attention to what they might otherwise turn away from — the experiences of war-related trauma transmitted over several generations, the difficulty of being a nonwhite refugee in the United States, the despair brought on by poverty (which the novel tackles movingly in its unrelenting indictment of how OxyContin has been marketed), and the need to assert a queer sexuality in a punishing heteronormative culture. The people caught up in such struggles are rarely considered beautiful, and certainly rarely, if ever, an inspiration for replication, but Little Dog is special in his insistence that they are beautiful. In doing so, he focuses attention on what makes life worth living even in the midst of so much refusal and abandonment. This kind of living is hard work.