Epistolary novel (a novel written in the form of a letter)
Setting and Context
Various settings, including Vietnam during the Vietnam War, as well as Hartford, Connecticut from the mid-1990s to early 2000s
Narrator and Point of View
The novel is written and narrated from the perspective of Little Dog, who is suggested to be a stand-in for Vuong himself.
Tone and Mood
The tone is one of sadness and longing, even regret. As a result, the mood is dark and upsetting. At the same time, there is also a measure of hopefulness and positivity.
Protagonist and Antagonist
The protagonist is Little Dog, and the antagonist is the array of racism, homophobia, and multi-generational trauma that he encounters.
Little Dog, a first-generation Vietnamese immigrant to America, tries to settle into life in a new country. His mother does not speak English and they live in a rough area of Hartford, Connecticut with Little Dog's grandmother, Lan. The major conflict is their struggle to survive and acclimatize to this new way of life.
Little Dog has sex with Trevor in the barn at the tobacco farm. He finally feels a sense of closeness and oneness with Trevor, as well as a sense of self-acceptance and self-love. It is a short-lived moment, however, for Little Dog and Trevor soon drift apart and Trevor later dies of a drug overdose.
Little Dog's father is conspicuously absent for much of the novel. This serves to foreshadow the reason why he is not present. It is later revealed that he physically abused Little Dog's mother and was arrested after nearly killing her.
Trevor's death is also foreshadowed in the descriptions of his heavy drug consumption and reckless behavior.
Given the expressive and dramatic nature of the prose, it is quite difficult to locate understatement. One example, however, is a scene that the narrator remembers from his childhood, in which Little Dog and his mother flee from his father after he has beaten up his mother. They walk in the rain as Little Dog's mother is covered in blood, yet Little Dog only comments, "Red. Red. Red. Red. Your hands wet over mine" (230). It is an example of the ways in which trauma can be blocked out from memory.
The novel features many allusions to the Vietnam War and references to places that were important during the conflict, including "Cam Ranh Bay." There are also many allusions to drugs like Oxycontin, heroin, and cocaine that Trevor and Little Dog consume together.
The novel is full of beautiful and striking images. Perhaps one of the most striking images is a scene in which Little Dog helps an old woman into his mother's nail salon. When she sits down, she reveals that she has a prosthetic leg, which she removes. Little Dog's mother, while surprised, proceeds as normal. After she has finished massaging the woman's one leg, the woman asks if she can massage the space where the other leg would be, claiming that she can still feel it. Little Dog's mother agrees, and Little Dog watches as his mother massages the empty space beneath the woman's leg. It is a beautiful image of acceptance and compassion.
The sexual relationship between Little Dog and Trevor is presented as a paradox. While Trevor has feelings for Little Dog and finds Little Dog attractive, he does not want to be considered gay. As a result, he goes to great lengths to explain how their relationship is not homosexual, and how Little Dog is more homosexual than himself. His attempts to explain the relationship and his sexuality, however, only serve to prove that he has a same-sex attraction to Little Dog.
In a beautiful passage towards the end of the book, there is a series of parallel phrases, in which the author addresses an unknown subject, saying, "As a rule, be more. As a rule, I miss young. As a rule, 'little' is always smaller than 'small.' Don't ask me why" (192).
Metonymy and Synecdoche
Tiger Woods is presented as a stand-in for all Americans with Asian background. In a similar sense, Little Dog's story is a stand-in for the immigrant experience in general. Vuong also uses the verb, "Googled" which has come to act as a stand-in for the use of all types of internet search engines.
Vuong personifies truth when he writes, "the truth is memory has not forgotten us" (190). It is personification because he ascribes a sentience to truth, as in the ability to remember or forget. He also personifies darkness and night in one passage where he writes, "in the dark... its mouth open where you can crawl through," as though the darkness has facial features like a mouth.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.