Ocean Vuong’s 2019 novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is a stunning and lyrical elegy addressed to the protagonist’s (Little Dog’s) mother, Rose. Rose is a Vietnamese migrant. She is the fair-skinned daughter of an American soldier and Lan, the winsome, strong, and schizophrenic Vietnamese survivor of the War who lives with Rose and Little Dog in Connecticut. Rose is both loving and cruelly violent, for she is a mother who carries within her the carnage of a war she barely remembers—a memory that she passes down like a half-forgotten and doomed language to her son. Her son, however, upon becoming the translator of that language writes in prose so tender and merciful that, like water, it smooths away each and every sharp edge. Rose can neither read nor speak this new language, yet this language, like the book that is addressed to her, is hers all the same.
Although Ocean Vuong is a practicing Zen Buddhist, his prose is capacious enough to transmogrify yet again in its reception: for me now into the idiom of the Gospel. In an interview for Time with Viet Thanh Nguyen, Vuong speaks of his attentiveness to Christianity in his writing thus:
I tend to Christianity with a Buddhist gaze, exploring it as a part of America’s lexicon of existence. There is a world of thinking in Christianity that has literally shaped the country and people around me, so I am obligated to respond to it in my work. In another sense, to go back to Simone Weil, this idea that the religion is already so poetic is true; the Bible is written in some of the most potent and charged and complicated language in order to be inexhaustibly interpreted.
In what follows, I will then speak of this text as a sort of Lenten meditation, not because that was the author’s intent, but because his novel illumines the Christian passion narrative in a way that is both potent and charged. This has to do with the author’s inexhaustible generosity in tending to, in being attentive to, the lexicon of existence that has shaped the country that is his now ambivalent home. In other words, this has everything to do with grace.
On Earth resonates with the Passion narrative for it tells the story of a finding a way out of the intergenerational violence that shapes us (what Christians may name sin), not by fleeing it, but by looking squarely at it. To tend unflinchingly to the human capacity for violence is to lament the racism, the homophobia, and the toxic masculinity that already exists in elementary school playgrounds in America. Yet in Vuong’s deft hand, violence’s early mimesis is not a life sentence. Its scapegoating acts are performed to allay the terrors within their own small hearts and their own cruel homes:
‘Speak English’ said the boy with a yellow bowl cut, his jowls flushed and rippling.
The cruelest walls are made of glass, Ma. I had to urge to break through the pane and leap out the window.
‘Hey.’ The jowlboy leaned in, his vinegar mouth on the side of my cheek. Don’t you ever say nothing’? Don’t you speak English? He grabbed my shoulder and spun me to face him. ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you.’
He was only nine but had already mastered the dialect of damaged American fathers. The boys crowded around me, sensing entertainment. I could smell their fresh-laundered clothes, the lavender and the lilac in the softeners.
(On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, p.24)
Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me.
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me.
(Psalm 22: 13 -14)
It is surprising, then, that Little Dog’s redemption will take place at the hand of a boy much like these. One summer, as a teen working at a tobacco farm, Little Dog meets Trevor. Trevor lived on the outskirts of town in an Easter yellow trailer home with his abusive, alcoholic father. From Trevor he learns what it is to see and to be seen, to hold and to behold. Throughout their love affair, their eyes remain mercifully tender, for they are still too young, and too beautiful, to behold the other with a view more damaging than desire. Trevor, although poor, was privileged. To be white in this world was to be poor and afraid and addicted to OxyContin, but it meant living “in a room and a broken-down mobile home [which] was somehow, a privilege, a chance.” (112)
He was wearing his gold cross, the one he never takes off, and it kept poking at my cheek. So I took it in my mouth to keep it steady. It tasted like rust, salt, and Trevor. The sparks in my head bloomed with each thrust. After a while, the pain melted into a strong ache, a weightless numbness that swept through me like a new, warmer season. (202)
This book is about love and it is about death, and it is above all about love “as strong as death” (Song of Solomon 8:6). Vuong refuses both their separation and their ranking. And because of this, the life we know radiates purple—for love is inextricably bound to mourning. Purple is the colour of the wildflowers Little Dog scaled a fence to pick at his grandmother’s behest. Purple is the colour that seeps up her legs as her death draws near. Purple is the colour of the sky over Saigon where blood mixes with despair.
Then Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And Pilate said to them, “Behold the Man!” John 19:5
While purple casts its bittersweet hue upon this life, transforming weeds to bouquets and a vibrant grandmother into a cancer-riddled shell, Vuong holds out hope yet for its transcendence. He imagines a world illumined by secret multicoloured vibrancy, like coloured birds dappling the sombre purple sky, “flourishing like fruit” (231) in their rising and falling–through language, through faith, through love:
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. (231)
This story is so hauntingly singular and Vuong’s tone so pitch perfect, one worries about betraying it by translation. But perhaps this is the nature of religious stories. They are the tales of gods and demons and sages and mortals and the distance that exists between them, and the distance that is overcome by mercy. Vuong has brought together the two worlds to which he belongs—Vietnam and USA—both of which marked by the brutality of history. And it is in passing through these far countries of brutality that beauty miraculously remains. I can think of no better retelling of the mystery of Easter.
It was beauty, I learned, that we risked ourselves for. (p. 208)
In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. Revelation 22:2.