According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, phenomenology is the study of human consciousness and how persons encounter objects, which posits that the central structure of experience is its "intentionality," or ability to be directed to a singular object. For centuries, phenomenology has been a guiding critical framework, but it only acquired the label "phenomenology" in the twentieth century with such critical and philosophical theorists as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others. In recent philosophy, phenomenology is often restricted to the characterization of sensory qualities of seeing, hearing, etc. However, our experience is normally much richer in content than mere sensation. As such, phenomenology is also a study of the structure of various types of experience ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, and desire. In this vein, phenomenology addresses the ways we come to experience and interpret the world.
Though phenomenology seems decidedly rooted within the field of philosophy, it also has a rich tradition with the field of literary studies. Incidentally, Sartre—one of the most influential theorists of phenomenology—published many plays and novels and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Phenomenological theories of literature regard works of art as mediators between the consciousnesses of the author and the reader as attempts to disclose the nature of being, humans, and the world.
Roman Ingarden, who coined the field of phenomenological aesthetics, argues that, unlike autonomous and determinate objects, literary works depend for their existence on the intentional acts of their creators and of their readers. But they are not mere figments because they develop a kind of real-life permanence within the minds of the reader and multiple readers. Ingarden describes a literary work as an "intentional object," which has its origin in the acts of consciousness of its creator that are preserved in writing, and these acts are then reanimated—although repeated with a difference—by the consciousness of the reader. The existence of a work transcends any particular momentary experience of it, even though it came into being and continues to exist only through various acts of consciousness.
Ingarden has been extremely influential in the development of phenomenological reader-response theories, but his views have also been subjected to extensive criticisms and revisions, particularly by Wolfgang Iser, who faults Ingarden for limiting excessively, or foreclosing, the possibilities for disruptions and dissonances through which literature achieves its effects. In other words, Iser believes that the act of reading is not simply a one-way street of author to reader but a mutually-enforcing relation that requires both categories to generate meaning. For Iser, reading is a process of discovery in which the surprises, frustrations, and reversals emerge, which have the force to propel the reader into different conceptions of the self and of the world at large.
In Vuong's debut novel, he is most concerned with exploring the limitations of language and how we experience reading, writing, and acts of interpretation and knowing. Most notably, when Little Dog writes of commas (as a pause or break that allows for a continuance, not an end) and the inherent failure of his letter to reach his mother, he develops a relationship between how we read and make meaning of texts. More specifically, there is a way in which Little Dog's relation to the actual words themselves take on a more affective tenor that allows us to understand the way in which the very language we use to express ourselves not only shapes our thoughts and feelings but also delimits modes of expression and forecloses other possibilities. The inherent failure of Little Dog's letter to his illiterate mother instantiates a central dilemma of the novel in terms of perception and consciousness—that is, what does it mean for others to read a text that was not intended for them at the same time, on a meta-textual level, it is? Though this question is one that remains unresolvable, it allows us to raise questions about the experience of reading and writing as that which not only shapes Little Dog's subjectivity but also our own.