This first novel by Ocean Vuong (who has previously published a collection of poetry that has been on my TBR for years) is the most recent book that I’ve seen sweeping the reading community. I’ve seen nothing but amazing reviews and recommendations and so I knew that, eventually, I’d want to read it. But I had planned to read his poetry first. However, I made a spur of the moment book decision when I walked past this one on my library’s “Lucky Day” shelf and (knowing how long the waitlist was for the book and audiobook, because of course I’d checked that) decided to grab it.
“It’s in these moments, next to you, that I envy words for doing what we can never do – how they can tell all of themselves simply by standing still, simply by being. Imagine I could lie down beside you and my whole body, every cell, radiates a clear, singular meaning, not so much a writer as a word pressed down beside you.”
This novel is one long “letter” from a young man, Little Dog, to his (illiterate) mother. Knowing that his mother will likely never actually read the letter, Little Dog is able to speak openly and truthfully to many subjects, from his family’s past in Vietnam to the sometimes-violent relationship between them to their time spent as immigrants in the United States to his own sexuality and general feelings.
Honestly, I completely see why this book has garnered all the vehement support of the reviewer/reader community. It is, truly, one of the most gorgeous (reference intended) books I have ever read. There is absolute poetry in his words, in every line and on every page, in a way that is meant to be savored slowly. In fact, I’m sorry that I got this as a Lucky Day book, actually, because the two-week loan (with no option to renew) was not enough time for me to appreciate the writing. I have never read a book slower, for all that it’s not very long, because I felt like I had to take constant breaks to fully digest and cherish what I was reading. I reread full sections, pages, right after finishing them, because the words were just too beautiful to only experience once. And each reread gave me more depth, as I noticed and understood more than I had the first time through. I don’t think I’ve actually ever read prose like that before, writing that is more than just poetic prose and crosses over into poetry shaped as prose. Simply breathtaking. And it wasn’t just that, but the way that themes and images are introduced throughout the larger novel and, over time, are reintroduced, referenced, and woven together to create something so finessed and interlaced that the whole far surpasses even the perfection of the individual pieces. I just really don’t think I’ve ever experienced a book like I did this one – there’s really nothing I can write to do justice to Vuong’s language and you just have to go experience it for yourself. (Side note: I absolutely want to read his poetry more than ever now.)
As for the “plot,” such as it is…this is less a traditional novel, with a storyline that rises and falls, and more a collection of reflections and reminiscences of the moments that made Little Dog what he is. It’s the portrait of those memories that created the life and identity he inhabits. And it’s the perfect way to take advantage of Vuong’s style…using the language to carry his points rather than a true plot or other device. There’s nothing behind which to hide, which is ok, because there is nothing Vuong is trying to hide. This is a reflection on city living, substance misuse and addiction, mental health, creativity and writing, sexuality, death and grief, first love, masculinity, family, and the reality of being an immigrant in a country that does very little to show it wants you there. The breadth of topics covered and explored is astounding, even to me, as I tried to list them all out right here, even though I just finished reading. I almost cannot believe how much Vuong is able to cover, and so comprehensively and emotionally, in such a short work. And although there were certain parts that spoke to me more strongly than others, some jarring, some earnest, some that hit me strongly and some that I connected with less, they are all full of a certain rawness that is impossible to ignore.
Vuong’s style of storytelling may not be one that works for everyone, but even so, it is written in a way that is so objectively stunning, so exquisite, so urgent, that I cannot find fault with that. I’d like to end by just adding my voice to the praise this book has received.
So, I can’t talk that much about the language of the novel, without giving examples, right? And oh, I had so very many examples. I marked and highlighted so many passages…here’s just a “small” selection of those that struck me:
“To live, then, is a matter of time, of timing.”
“Because love, at its best, repeats itself. Shouldn’t it?”
“…but some things are so gauzed behind layers of syntax and semantics, behind days and hours, names forgotten, salvaged and shed, that simply knowing the wound exists does nothing to reveal it. […] I guess what I mean is sometimes I don’t know what or who we are. Days I feel like a human being, while other days I feel more like a sound. I touch the world not as myself but as an echo of who I was.”
“Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are.”
“To be or not to be. That is the question. A question, yes, but not a choice.”
“Because a bullet without a body is a song without ears.”
“This is my superpower, he thinks: to make a dark even darker than what’s around me.”
“It was dark enough for my eyes to swallow all of him without ever seeing him clearly.”
“I remember it all because how can you forget anything about the day you first found yourself beautiful?”
“He loves me, he loves me not, we are taught to say, as we tear the flower away from its flowerness. To arrive at love, then, is to arrive through obliteration. Eviscerate me, we mean to say, and I’ll tell you the truth.”
“Sometimes, when I’m careless, I think survival is easy: you just keep moving forward with what you have, or what’s left of what you were given, until something changes – or you realize, at last, that you can change without disappearing, that all you had to do was wait until the storm passes you over and you find that – yes – your name is still attached to a living thing.”
“But for now, the city brims before us with a strange, rare brilliance – as if it was not a city at all, but the sparks made by some god sharpening his weapon above us.”
“To stay tender, the weight of your life cannot lean on your bones.”
“In a world myriad as ours, the gaze is a singular act: to look at something is to fill your whole life with it, if only briefly.”
“Too much joy, I swear, is lost in our desperation to keep it.”
“I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck – the pieces floating, finally legible.”
“Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence – but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.”
“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.”
“Because the sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearance.”