On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Summary and Analysis of Part Three: 1-5


We return to prose and learn that Little Dog is returning to Hartford from New York. During his train ride, we also learn the reason for his return: Trevor has died from an overdose. It has been over five years since Little Dog first met Trevor, and he doesn't bother telling anyone he is coming to town. He was in a literature course when he saw the Facebook post from Trevor's father: it said, “I’m broken in two." Little Dog left in the middle of the lecture and got on the train. He thinks about Trevor, about his last moment with Trevor. He remembers when Trevor told him that he would "kill it" in New York. At that moment, Little Dog knew Trevor was high. He glanced at Trevor’s arms and saw the dark purple bruises in the bend of his arm, where he dug in his veins with needles. Little Dog didn’t know it, but that was the last time he saw Trevor. He would never again see or kiss the comma-shaped scar on the side of Trevor’s neck. “Isn’t that the saddest thing in the world, Ma?” Little Dog asks. “A comma forced to be a period?”

Little Dog heads for Trevor's house once he arrives in Hartford, but, when he is almost there, he decides that he does not want to disrupt Trevor's father's mourning. Little Dog walks to the park and soon arrives home, where it is dark and quiet inside. The television is on but muted, and Little Dog uses its light to walk upstairs, where he cries himself to sleep. In the following chapter, Little Dog begins his letter again because it is late. Little Dog recounts a time when “FAG4LIFE” was spray painted in red on their front door. Rose cannot read and does not know what the words mean, so Little Dog tells her it says “Merry Christmas.”

Rose once asked Little Dog what it meant to be a writer, and he responded by saying that four of his friends are dead from drug overdoses. “Five,” Little Dog corrects himself now, “if you count Xavier who flipped his Nissan doing ninety on a bad batch of fentanyl.” Little Dog doesn’t even celebrate his birthday anymore. Trevor started taking OxyContin after he broke his ankle the year before Little Dog met him. The drug, which is basically heroin in a pill, was first produced in 1996. A girl Lan knew in Go Cong was “erased” just weeks before the war ended, and she is a “ruin no one can point to." A ruin without location, like a language. Within a month of first taking the Oxy, Little Dog says that Trevor was already addicted.

Little Dog remembers watching television with Lan one afternoon and seeing a program in which a herd of buffalo follow each other off a cliff, falling to their death. Lan is horrified and asks why they do such a thing, and Little Dog explains that the buffalo don’t know they are running to certain death. “They don’t mean to, Grandma,” Little Dog says. “They’re just following their family. That’s all. They don’t know it’s a cliff.” Lan says they should have stop signs. There were stops signs growing up in Hartford, Little Dog says, but they weren’t always there. A woman named Marsha used to go door to door with a petition for stop signs. Her sons played in the neighborhood, she said, and she wanted them to be safe. Marsha’s older son, Kevin, died of an overdose not long after, and her younger son, Kyle, died five years later the very same way.

Little Dog asks Rose who they were before they were themselves. Maybe they will meet each other again in another life, and they will know everything except for the pain they have caused each other. “Maybe we’ll be the opposite of buffaloes,” Little Dog says. “We’ll grow wings and spill over the cliff as a generation of monarchs, heading home.” Little Dog tells Rose that he misses her and that he is sorry he doesn’t call more. He says he is sorry for always asking “How are you?” when what he really wants to know is “Are you happy?”

We are in a quiet room that is as still as a photograph. Lan is on the floor, and Rose, Little Dog, and Mai surround her. Lan has been in bed for two weeks because she experiences so much pain that she is unable to move. As a result, she has developed bed sores, which have become infected. A doctor diagnoses Lan with stage four bone cancer and says that most of her femur has been eaten away; she has only two to three weeks to live. Because Lan's body is deteriorating, Little Dog finds her unrecognizable. Little Dog used to take pleasure in transformational beauty, but he is unable to find beauty in Lan.

Little Dog begins to think of Trevor, who has only been dead for seven months. Little Dog recalls the time when they had penetrative sex. With each of Trevor’s movements, torrents of pain rip through Little Dog. What Little Dog doesn’t know, though, is that anal sex actually feels good if you make it past the pain. After about 10 minutes, Little Dog feels his bowels let loose and puts his head down in shame. Surprised, Trevor jumps up, and Little Dog couldn’t feel more naked if he had been standing there without clothes. Later, Trevor tells Little Dog not to worry about what happened, and Little Dog nods, humiliated and still in pain. Trevor grabs Little Dog by the chin and asks if he hears him, and Little Dog nods again, moving in the direction of the shore. Trevor grabs Little Dog and stops him. He drops to his knees in the water and grabs Little Dog’s thighs, taking Little Dog into his mouth. When he is done, Trevor stands and wipes his mouth. “Good as always,” he says, climbing out of the water.

Little Dog returns us to Lan's condition: we learn that she begins to die in the morning. Her feet have turned purple, which reminds Little Dog of the time he stole purple flowers for Lan because she thought they were beautiful and wanted proximity to the beauty. The novel jumps in time, and Lan has been dead for several months, and Rose and Little Dog are in Vietnam so they can bury her ashes in the Go Cong district. After the funeral ceremony, Little Dog calls Paul in front of Lan's grave. Little Dog thinks they have been disconnected when he hears Paul begin to talk and explain the reasons for his leaving her in Vietnam. We learn that his mother faked an illness to make him return to the United States, and his family intercepted Lan's letters. By the time the Salvation Army called and said there was woman in a refugee camp in the Philippines who claimed to be his wife, it was 1990 and Paul had been married to another woman for nearly ten years. Little Dog looks at Paul’s face and realizes he doesn’t know anyone.

The final moment of the novel is of Rose laughing after she says she no one "got her" because she was "fast."


In the following chapter, Little Dog begins his letter again because it is late. This chapter, in particular, includes a series of vignettes that cohere thematically but are represented in fragments. Little Dog’s need to keep restarting his letter again speaks to the importance of his message and the difficulties in trying to write it. As Little Dog attempts to tell, or rather show, Rose what it means to be a writer, the structure of his letter again reads like a stream of consciousness, and his thoughts become random and seemingly disconnected, much like memory can be.

Little Dog hopes his letter will connect him in some meaningful way to his mother. He loves her, even if their relationship is difficult, and that love is reflected in even the smallest, most insignificant things, like the way Rose mispronounces certain words. Little Dog’s late night prayers are evidence of his struggles with his identity, as both a person of color and a member of the queer community, and his attempts to belong in a society in which he doesn’t really fit into. Little Dog’s claim that he is “at war” implies that the discrimination he faces as an immigrant in the current political climate is just as traumatic as Rose’s experience in actual war. Little Dog’s replacement of the word “over” by “up” reflects how important one word can be. To “blow over” implies a resolution, but to “blow up” is to be completely destroyed. Little Dog expects to be destroyed before racial discrimination is resolved in America.

Incidentally, the memory of the buffalo herd following their families over the sides of cliffs to certain death functions as a metaphor both for the cyclical nature of drug addiction within families and a kind of communal trust within families. This analogy has the potential to reflect the common nature of drug abuse and suggests that it often runs in families. Furthermore, Marsha is unable to keep her children away from drugs, despite her efforts to keep them safe. In Little Dog’s buffalo analogy, families are damaging and lead the other buffaloes to certain death; however, in his butterfly analogy, families are supportive and ensure survival through teaching and sharing memories. Little Dog hopes he and Rose will be monarchs and learn from their past trials and pain, rather than ignore what their stories have to teach them and run off of the metaphorical cliff to their deaths.

The death of Lan becomes the most climactic moment in the text not only because it is the passing of a member of Little Dog's family but also because it illustrates the death of narrative and histories. Lan’s return to Vietnam in death represents a homecoming. Lan’s Vietnamese identity was a major part of who she was, reflected by her burial in Vietnam. Rose and Little Dog observe traditional customs in Lan’s burial, which again speaks to her cultural and identity. Paul is clearly still in love with Lan after all these years, and this again underscores the power of memory. The truth behind Paul’s story and his reason for leaving Lan in Vietnam again suggests he has been in love with her all these years. It is revealed here that he has another wife, but he still keeps his and Lan’s wedding picture framed on his living room wall. Paul’s family didn’t want him married to a Vietnamese woman, so they tricked him into coming home, knowing it would be impossible for him to return to Vietnam.

It is here that the relationship between pain and pleasure returns and we are given a complicated portrait of masculinity, queerness, and intimacy. In Vietnam, we come to different understandings of queerness. When Little Dog watches the drag queens’ performance, he remarks on their colorful outfits and lively performances, which is supposed to keep the spirit of the recently deceased from getting trapped in limbo. Despite this tradition, however, being queer is still a “sin” in Vietnam. As long as the dead is lying in the open, the drag queens are “an othered performance.” They are “unreal,” like unicorns—“unicorns stomping in a graveyard.”

Little Dog later repeatedly mentions a table he remembers from his childhood. The table is intimately linked with his memories of his father, who Little Dog does not interact with. Little Dog claims he remembers his father and has put him “back together” in his memories, but Little Dog doesn’t actually remember anything about him, except for some coupons and a bloody dollar bill. Little Dog remembers the fire because Lan told him there was a fire, not because he actually remembers it firsthand, and the same goes for his father. Little Dog remembers his father simply because he was told he had one.

Despite this, the novel ends with a series of tender memories of Rose, Lan, and Paul. And the novel concludes with an especially heartwarming moment between Little Dog and Rose. Little Dog begins running. He doesn’t know why, but he keeps running through the field. He is with buffalo in a massive herd, and just as the first buffalo runs off the cliff, the buffaloes explode into monarch butterflies and fly over Little Dog’s head. Thousands of butterflies soar overhead, and Little Dog looks up to see Rose. He asks Rose why she wasn’t trampled by the buffaloes, and she says it's because she’s too fast and she laughs. Little Dog does not understanding why Rose laughs at the end of the novel, which emphasizes the opacity of narrative, storytelling, and being. Yet, the final image of the novel is ultimately a moment of survival and futurity. We end the novel with the implication that Little Dog, too, will pass his own narratives—what he is already attempting to do with this very narrative—to future generations.