In his letter, Little Dog not only includes graphic images of war, but also outlines how the war in Vietnam affected his family, particularly his mother and grandmother, who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, his grandmother relives the memories of a mortar attack when fireworks go off outside: “She was on her knees, scratching wildly at the blankets. Before I could ask what was wrong, her hand, cold and wet, grabbed my mouth. She placed her finger over her lips. ‘Shhh. If you scream,’ I heard her say, ‘the mortars will know where we are.’”
Moreover, because Lan experienced the scarcity of resources during the war, she teaches Little Dog not to be wasteful, telling him the proverb “Every grain of rice you leave behind is one maggot you eat in hell.”
Little Dog’s mother Rose is illiterate, which is also a consequence of the Vietnam War, as she did not go to school after her school building was destroyed during a napalm raid. Charting the lasting effects of war becomes the means for Little Dog to think about intergenerational trauma and inherited pain and violence.
As a child, Little Dog is exposed repeatedly to homophobic language when children call him a “freak, fairy, [and] fag” at recess. He also recollects the story of Marin, who is frequently called a “faggot” by passersby, whom Little Dog recalls saying, “I’m gonna kill you, bitch, I’m gonna cut you, AIDS gonna take you out. Don’t sleep tonight, don’t sleep tonight, don’t sleep tonight. Don’t sleep.”
After meeting Trevor, Little Dog finds “the letters FAG4LIFE scrawled in red spray paint across our front door,” which showcases the way queer people are always under the threat of violence for a supposed "deviant" sexuality. Little Dog also includes the story of a “fourteen-year-old boy in rural Vietnam [who] had acid thrown in his face after he slipped a love letter into another boy’s locker” and adds that “Last summer, twenty-eight-year-old Florida native Omar Mateen walked into an Orlando nightclub, raised his automatic rifle, and opened fire. Forty-nine people were killed. It was a gay club and the boys, because that’s who they were—sons, teenagers—looked like me: a colored thing born of one mother, rummaging the dark, each other, for happiness.” This incident illustrates the relationship between words and actions—that is, not only do words fuel action, but the words themselves are also action.
Since Little Dog is an immigrant and a writer, he frequently observes the English language from a position of distance and proximity. He is within the language but figured as an outsider. He outlines this ostensible paradox within the letter; as one example, he meditates on the meaning of the word "sorry" as it is used on the tobacco farm and in the nail salon. “In the nail salon, sorry is a tool one uses to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer merely apologizes, but insists, reminds: I’m here, right here, beneath you.”
Another instance of Little Dog carefully examining language is when he learns that Trevor has died, and his father posts on social media that he is “broken in two,” whereas Little Dog feels that it is more appropriate to say “Into—yes, that’s more like it. As in, Now I’m broken into.”
Moreover, he highlights the use of violent language to express something positive: “You killed that poem, we say. You’re a killer. You came into that novel guns blazing. I am hammering this paragraph, I am banging them out, we say. I owned that workshop. I shut it down. I crushed them. We smashed the competition. I’m wrestling with the muse. The state, where people live, is a battleground state. The audience a target audience.” As such, we can think of these moments as profound meditations on the way language gives shape not only to thoughts but also to a culture and people. It is in these instances that Vuong's On Earth becomes a meta-textual theorization of language itself—what it can and cannot do or communicate, or what it fails to do. Indeed, the meditation on language is also one of reading. In this way, we are made to understand that the figurative language we use not only impacts our thoughts but also our interactions and the way we relate to one another.
Of all the themes in the novel, the nature of beauty seems to be of notable concern. Little Dog is obsessed in how one finds beauty in things, what we name in beauty, and why we are attracted to it. Little Dog recalls a poignant memory of his grandmother Lan entreating him to pull a few violet wildflowers across a chain-link fence that divided the interstate from the sidewalk. Though Little Dog felt sick to do it, he managed to take the flowers and rejoiced in Lan's delight with the flowers. He later observes the events in the following terms: "it was beauty, I learned, that we risked ourselves for." In this way, we come to learn that an object that is able to give joy is also at the expense of risk and danger.
Later, following Lan's passing, Little Dog remarks, "I am thinking of beauty again, how some things are hunted because we have deemed them beautiful. If, relative to the history of our planet, an individual life is so short, a blink of an eye, as they say, then to be gorgeous, even from the day you're born to the day you die, is to be gorgeous only briefly. Like right now, how the sun is coming on, low behind the elms, and I can't tell the difference between a sunset and a sunrise." Because this comes at the end of the novel, we might think of this as the novel's final conclusion that Little Dog has spent most of the narrative trying to name and describe.
The act of naming and getting named in the book are of crucial significance. Little Dog tells us that he has had many names and that Little Dog emerged from his grandmother. He asks, "What made a woman who named herself and her daughter after flowers call her grandson a dog? A woman who watched out for her own, that's who." Naming, in this instance, not only becomes the means for identification but also for self-fashioning. It is through naming oneself that the characters in the novel become legible both to others and themselves. When Little Dog says that he has had many names, he captures the unspoken force of some names that are thrust onto people by force—names that attempt to locate someone within a domain of being when it actually displaces the person from themselves. Taking up the name Little Dog, then, both suggests that he identifies with the name and loves the person by whom the name was given.
Failure is an unspoken theme of the book that threads its way through every word. Failure is present in the inability to ever capture a memory, in the inability to ever change the course of events, and in the inability to communicate one's feelings. Indeed, when Little Dog begins his letter with, "I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are," he captures the inherent failure of the letter and, by extension, the novel at large. In other words, because Little Dog's mother is unable to read, she will not be able to read her son's letter. While Little Dog suggests that there is a possibility that she may learn to read one day, it is with an understanding that that possibility is quite low. In this way, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeousreformulates many narrative tropes from the Western canon: What is a confession if it will never be heard? What is a letter if it will never be read? What is a story if it can never be known?
At the same time, in stunning contradiction, these questions are also answered in the text, though not in explicit terms. Little Dog states that his ability to write the letter was predicated on the knowledge that it would never be read. While a paradox, it seems to suggest that the confession is still a confession, that the letter is still a letter, and that the story is still a story, even if its intended audience is not present. In other words, it is through the act of writing the story that the story itself becomes legible and known.
Time, Memory, Stillness
Time and memory order the novel. The novel is structured by Little Dog's memories and brief vignettes of his childhood and adolescence. Little Dog's memories in the first part of the novel is conveyed through the refrain "That time" and "the time," which almost figures time as something more than an abstract concept. As is inherent for all narratives, memory is elusive and the past is always under the construction of those who want to mobilize it for a particular mood. In the context of Little Dog's letter, he employs memory as a means to search for something in himself. Though he is writing for his mother, who will most likely never read his letter, Little Dog's memories are also mundane, concerned with the beauty of stillness and of loved ones in time.
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.