Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Review: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

It was no surprise to learn that the author is a poet. The phrasing is wrenchingly gorgeous. The text is packed with figurative language and juxtaposition that forces the reader to grapple for connections.

It is also no surprise to learn the author is an academic. The fourth wall is broken, the act of writing is examined, the use of metaphor is ultimately questioned, the format is malleable, and historical and current writers are referenced.

What did surprise me was easily finding a classic three-act structure within what appeared to be unstructured text. The author even splits the books into three labeled parts. Part I is clearly family (thesis, childhood), II is romance (anti-thesis, adolescence), III brings family and lover together under the theme of death (synthesis, adulthood).

Another classic plot-driving technique the author uses is raising questions. I had a hard time putting the book down, despite there not being an obvious plot and realized that the author was using
the unstructured nature and incoherent timeline to introduce and develop characters and events in a way to keep the reader going, searching for the next tiny hint or larger answer. Who is the woman holding the girl? Who is the soldier by the road? Who is the white, teenage boy and why is he bleeding? These are the kinds of questions I've learned from Rachel Weaver that compel the reader to continue through more conventionally structured novels.  The key, though, still is character: I had to care enough about the protagonist and his friends and family to want to find out what was happening.

One of the major questions I had while reading was how much was drawn from the author's life and how much was fiction. I read an interview with the author in which he said his poems aren't always from his point of view, and indeed it is too easy for readers to assume a protagonist who matches the author in gender, race, age and apparent life situation is drawn just from that person. However, this book apparently qualifies as auto-fiction, which is somewhere between fiction and memoir.

Overall, I enjoyed reading it, it tugged on my emotions and I had no trouble finishing it, which is a significant accomplishment at this stage of my life and writing career.  (More on that in my next post!)

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Writers Who Read book club hosted by Gary McBride. 
Click on the title (of this, and many more) for his slides containing an intensive analysis of the text.

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