Assorted novelties: Ocean Vuong wants to let books live

A drawing of Ocean Vuong.
(Mariana Duran • The Student Life)

I learned how to read lying belly-down on the carpet of my kindergarten classroom. Still unable to read independently, I shared books with a friend who explained each word to me. We spent languid afternoons sharing picture books splayed side by side across the germy floor, stomachs full of apple juice, peanut butter sandwiches and new stories.  

I loved all books, but I was particularly obsessed with a beautifully illustrated version of “Rapunzel.” My friend guided me through the tough passages, showing me how each letter formed words corresponding with actions and emotions. As we traversed the pages, time slowed. Finding refuge from the scheduled life of a 5-year-old student, the story transported me to a wilderness, a castle, an entirely different world filled with intrigue and danger. 

“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” Ocean Vuong’s 2019 mostly autobiographical novel, took me back to this place. This book is no “Rapunzel”; it tells a devastating story of immigration, family and identity, styled as letters to the protagonist’s mother. Stitching together family tales of the Vietnam War and childhood memories in a drug-ridden Hartford, Vuong presents a personal narrative that is both intimate — specific to him and his experiences — and universal. The book is a meditation on otherness in America, packaging political questions in a combination of poetic verse and prose: a final product fit to read in a single, consuming blow.

Vuong, a poet and professor, writes with stunning prowess, summoning words to describe experiences usually deemed indescribable. When Vuong describes the train ride home after learning of his lover’s death, he cloaks the landscape between New York and Connecticut with bitterly perfect sadness. There’s the “greasy parking lot,” bus lights that “make it feel like a dentist’s office” and “October trees” blurring by, “branches raking purple sky.” I don’t think I knew how to explain loss before reading this passage. It’s like Vuong filled the English lexicon with an emotional density that had gone missing, coaxing his readers to understand the weight of each moment with welcoming, fluid prose and imagery. Reading this passage made me feel like a baby — raw, fragile and teary.   

My experience with this book felt strange, not because I have any kind of privileged relationship with the story but rather because I read all the time. Not for fun, but for school. Despite how much time I devote to reading each week, this was different. I felt like a professional swimmer, suddenly torn from the pool and asked to run a marathon.

We — the students of the 5Cs — are all good readers. Our prestigious institutions levy slews of readings on us without mercy, week after week. We skim to keep up, hacking away unnecessary weeds to find “the main idea.” Worshipping productivity above all else, reading is a task to be optimized, not enjoyed. 

Skimming, as opposed to reading, prioritizes the search for a punchline instead of catharsis, escape or reflection. While reading, we simultaneously prepare takeaways, allowing us to distill our experience living in the woodwork of a story into communicable anecdotes. With our attention stretched thin, we demonstrate our understanding of books by regurgitating the punchline. What strikes me as particularly egregious, as someone who reads more like the tortoise than the hare, is that skimming earns A’s. 

Not with professor Ocean Vuong. 

“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” refuses to be skimmed. Should one try to identify a punchline, they’d run up a dead end. Vuong prohibits skimming by subtly lacing stories together with extended metaphors, asking the reader to recollect and reflect on the book in its entirety. More explicitly, Vuong proposes an idea — perhaps radical to students — that distilling the book to a punchline might entail a kind of destruction. Even the word itself signifies violence. To punch means to beat up text to find meaning. Vuong engages in this discussion as well.

“Why can’t the language of creativity be the language of regeneration? You killed that poem, we say. You’re a killer. You came in to 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,” Vuong writes.

I wonder if reading sometimes feels like getting smashed over the head by a plastic baseball bat, not because there’s just so much of it for school, but rather because we engage with a destructive mindset. Habituated to this mode of reading, even fun beach books can feel burdensome, like we focus on the final goal of closing the back cover instead of luxuriously wandering through a campy love affair. 

Vuong’s book ran me over like a bus, propelled both by the intense emotional storytelling and my own nostalgia for a long-lost mode of reading. I read slowly, hesitantly, carefully, turning over each word in my head for fear of missing out on the larger picture. Curled up semi-fetal on the couch, I was a kindergartner lost in the world of “Rapunzel.” There was no destination or claim or wild point that I needed to find. I just needed to be in the pages of the book. 

Anna Solomon PZ ’23 is TSL’s book columnist. An aspiring thinker in the political sciences, she is passionate about breakfast cereal, long runs and defending the honor of listening to the radio.

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