On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous and Saturation

Reading Like a Writer with Allison Wyss

Ocean Vuong's On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a novel about a Vietnamese-American boy, his childhood, and his first boyfriend. It’s written as a letter to the boy’s mother, a woman who is both traumatized and abusive. Vuong is not only a novelist but a poet, and the lyricism of the book is intense. Sentences frequently hold more than you think they possibly can. And imagery is intense. I'd like to look at a few pages that are delightfully saturated with a resonant motif.

Do you remember the happiest day of your life? What about the saddest? Do you ever wonder if sadness and happiness can be combined, to make a deep purple feeling, not good, not bad, but remarkable simply because you didn't have to live on one side or the other?

Main Street was empty the night Trevor and I rode our bikes down the middle of the road, our tires swallowing fat yellow lines as we sped. It was seven p.m., which meant there were only five hours left of Thanksgiving Day. Our breaths smoked above us. With each inhale, the pungent wood fires made a bright note in my lungs. Trevor's old man was back at the trailer, in front of a football game, eating TV dinners with bourbon and Diet Coke.

My reflection warped over the storefront glass as we rode. The stoplights blinked yellow and the only sound was the clicking spokes beneath us. We rode back and forth like that, and for a stupid moment it felt like that strip of concrete called Main Street was all we ever possessed, all that held us. Mist came down, diffracted the streetlights into huge, van Gogh orbs. Trevor, ahead of me, stood up on his bike, arms out on both sides, and shouted, "I'm flying! Hey, I'm flying!" His voice cracked as he mimicked the scene in Titanic where the girl stands at the bow of the ship. "I'm flying, Jack!" he shouted.

After a while, Trevor stopped pedaling and let his bike slide to a stop, arms at his side.

"I'm starving."

"Me too," I said.

"There's a gas station up there." He pointed to a Shell station ahead of us. Surrounded by the vast night, it looked like a spaceship had crashed on the side of the street.

Inside, we watched two frozen egg-and-cheese sandwiches spin together in the microwave. The old white lady at the counter asked us where we were headed.

"Home," Trevor said. "My mom's stuck in traffic so just getting a snack before she comes for dinner." The woman's eyes flicked over me as she handed him the change. Trevor's mom moved to Oklahoma with her boyfriend almost five years ago.

On the stoop of a dentist's office, across the street from a shuttered Friendly's, we unwrapped our sandwiches. Warm cellophane crinkled in our hands. We chewed, stared into the restaurant windows, where a poster of a sundae advertised a ghastly green "Colossal Leprechaun Mint Boat" from last March. I held my sandwich close, letting the steam blur my vision.

"Do you think we'll still hang out when we're a hundred?" I said without thinking.

He flung the wrapper, which caught the wind and blew back atop the bush beside him. Right away I regretted asking. Swallowing, he said, "People don't live to a hundred." He ripped open a packet of ketchup, squeezed a thin red line over my sandwich.

"True." I nodded.

So the big idea is a moment of happiness and sadness combined to something like purple—that is explained. And then we get a scene that is meant to be an example of such a moment.

But inside that moment, image after image repeats the same idea. It’s not an accident that they ride their bikes in the middle of the road instead of down one side. Consider how a trailer is both mobile and grounded. Consider how bourbon and Diet Coke are such opposites—in terms of flavor, in terms of cost, in terms of danger—and yet they mix into a single drink. The stoplights aren’t red or green but yellow (the color linking again to that line in the road). The “back and forth” motion of their bikes works with the spread-out arms. We see image after image of both things at once, opposites combined, or borders straddled.

The imagery thins a bit in later paragraphs, but it doesn’t disappear. A crashed spaceship evokes flight but is grounded. And think about a “shuttered Friendly’s”—that’s my favorite one. When they eat, it’s the cellophane, oddly, that’s warm, and a sundae is described as ghastly. The sandwich must be good, but it’s like the narrator eats it with his hands and eyes instead of his mouth. The “thin red line” at the end is like the highway line that they straddle. It’s also both food and blood, flavor and death.

Sometimes it takes more work to find this combination of opposites. When streetlights are “defracted” to make “Van Gogh orbs” the reader sees the painting style of van Gogh—the way sharply contrasting colors swirl together. (Of course, the life and mythology of this artist is charged with symbolism—a missing ear, for goodness sake! But whether/how Vuong is deploying that is not my point—I just love the swirling colors and what brain makes of them.) When Trevor’s voice cracks a minute later, I see it van Gogh style, defracting in high notes and low notes—another of this persistent image. Later, it happens to the egg and cheese sandwiches, too.

Even the reflection in the glass, which is perhaps also a separate motif, is a way to look in opposite directions at the same time.

I’m interested in Trevor’s mother in Oklahoma, too. A lie presents the reader, always, with two images. So what if one is not true? In fiction, none of it is true, and we imagine it just the same. Therefore, the conflicting mothers—at home and away—repeat the motif of happy and sad at the same time. But even the lie puts Trevor’s mother between two places—stuck in traffic. And the word “home” is inside Okla”home”a, like she’s both places at once even without the lie. Or maybe that’s stretching too far.

But it’s a passage that leads me to look for this stuff! To find it where it is and where it isn’t—it’s deliciously brimming. I might have thought it was too much—if I tried it in my own work, say. But reading it, I only love it.

Anyway, what is too much? Is there a too much? Is it okay to be unsubtle? Of course it's okay! But when? I think it's all about taste—about figuring out your own, and maybe, if you're especially kind, figuring out your reader's taste, too.