Earlier this month, I was crying while reading the news, as we do now. Maria Isabel Bueso, 24, has been in the United States since the age of 7, when she was invited to come from Guatemala to California to participate in a clinical trial for the treatment of the rare genetic disease mucopolysaccharidosis VI. Her participation in the clinical trial helped others with the disease and also extended her own life, but she must continue receiving treatment to stay alive. Two weeks earlier she had received a letter informing her that she must leave the country within 33 days or else be deported. I felt powerless to do anything other than cry at the breakfast table, helpless (since I drafted this essay, the Trump administration has reversed course, after many people suffered a great deal of emotional anguish and expended a great deal of emotional energy). I wrote in my last post here about the power of art to create specifics and individuals rather than generalities of the large scale. But here I was encountering a story about a specific person, and what I felt was the same helplessness I usually feel when reading the news.
But when I finished reading Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous the next day, I didn’t feel hopeless. Yet both of these were specific and true stories about real individuals. What is the difference?
Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is billed as a novel/memoir about being Vietnamese in America, or about being the son of a mother traumatized and damaged by the war in Vietnam, or about coming of age as “the queer yellow faggot that I was and am” (199), but Vuong’s political commitments extend beyond race and sexuality, widening out by the end of the novel to include an indictment of Purdue Pharma—whose lies about OxyContin led to the opioid epidemic, which has had and still has a disproportionate impact on lower-class people of all races—and the human race, whose careless and selfish exploitation of animals serves throughout the novel as rich source of metaphoric meanings: the tortured macaque whose brains are spooned from its still living head and eaten by virility-seeking men becomes, metaphorically, both Little Dog’s grandmother and his mother. Little Dog himself is, of course, a dog, reminiscent of the line in Vuong’s poem “Thanksgiving 2006,” where the speaker tells a stranger: “I am ready. / I am ready to be every animal / you leave behind.” (Yes, Vuong is a vegan.)
Little Dog is a thinly fictionalized version of Vuong—part of the book was published in The New Yorker as memoir two years ago). So when he writes early in the novel that he is 28 years old (10) and then later tells his mother that “I’m not with you ’cause I’m at war. Which is one way of saying it’s already February and the president wants to deport my friends” (173), I check Wikipedia to learn Vuong’s birthdate and see that the February when he was 28 was 2017—days or weeks after Trump’s travel ban threw down the gauntlet, a klaxon blare telling us that he wasn’t kidding and he wasn’t pandering: the racism, the xenophobia, the hatred, the fear of all brown people and Muslims were truly Donald Trump.
From the beginning, the novel read like a memoir, so much so that I had to stop myself from googling the author to learn how many of the details tracked from the novel to reality. But then there came a moment when I was absolutely sure, beyond any doubt, with every fiber of my being, no need to google or speculate: Trevor was a real person that the real Ocean loved, and Trevor died. The shift was sudden, easy to identify in terms of genre: the book shifted from the form of a novel to an extended prose poem, and the emotional impact on me as a reader was immediate: I started to cry and kept crying through all eight pages of the prose poem. It called to mind the weirdness of arriving at the section titled “More Winter” in Carole Maso’s The Art Lover (1990)—a layered novel that plays with the distance between fiction and reality, starting with the novel-within-the-novel written by Caroline, the main character of the novel, shifting back and forth from novel to novel-within-the-novel until “More Winter,” when suddenly the speaker is Carole Maso, addressing her dead friend Gary Falk. She had spent the novel fictionalizing their friendship, his death from AIDS, turning their lives into the story of Caroline and Steven, and then she speaks to him. Caroline had been a first-person narrator, but when Carole speaks, she introduces a second-person addressee: “you” . . . Gary.
In both cases, the shift in style signals a shift in the assumed truth value of what is written. How do we know? It’s not so hard with the Maso novel: the name “Gary,” a new name, appears in the third paragraph, and “Carole” is named in the fourth paragraph. The name “Carole” on the book’s cover and Gary’s illness make the reader’s work effortless: Gary is to Steven as Carole is to Caroline. I have the hardback version, the first edition, and the book jacket copy makes it clear as well, from the beginning of Maso’s story’s life in the world: “In a daring and heartrending move, Maso breaks the fictive form with a harrowing account of her friend Gary Falk’s death from AIDS. She exposes the nearly unutterable wound at the center of The Art Lover, and we are allowed to see what is at stake for the author in her creation.”
What about the Vuong novel? When we literature teachers teach our students a lyric poem, we always caution them You can’t assume that the speaker of the poem *is* the author of the poem. The speaker is a fiction. But you can say it all day; people are still going to equate the speaker of a lyric poem with the poet. Why? And why did I do it so naturally upon turning the page and reading the first line, “Trevor rusted pickup and no license”? The narrative pauses – a sign that we are now in lyric mode – and the emotional tenor changes. It’s hard to keep believing that this is fiction, because it’s hard to imagine someone merely imagining so much raw pain. The shift in genre is the only explicit hint that we are now some distance closer to reality—Vuong doesn’t signal it, instead focusing on how Trevor, meat-eating product of the toxic masculinity that makes him hate and fight his queerness, nevertheless was too gentle to eat veal: “Trevor who would never eat a child. Trevor the child with the scar on his neck like a comma” (156). But Trevor is also the calf.
Only later, after the narrative picks up again, does Vuong reference the truth value of the character: “Trevor was a boy who had a name, who wanted to go to community college to study physical therapy. Trevor was alone in his room when he died, surrounded by posters of Led Zeppelin. Trevor was twenty-two. Trevor was” (178). This is “the unutterable wound at the center” of this novel.
I wrote last time about the emotional work that art helps us do. Vuong is explicit about the transformations that writing allows him to make:
You asked me what it’s like to be a writer and I’m giving you a mess, I know. But it’s a mess, Ma—I’m not making this up. I made it down. That’s what writing is, after all the nonsense, getting down so low the world offers a merciful new angle, a larger vision made of small things, the lint suddenly a huge sheet of fog exactly the size of your eyeball. (189)
And this is the second way that a novel can be true. If Vuong opens a wound and bleeds his suffering out for eight pages of true true true poetry, why didn’t he just write a memoir for the rest of the book? Why call it “A Novel” on the cover? He answers the question in an interview published in The Paris Review:
This is why I chose the novel as the form for this project. I wanted the book to be founded in truth but realized by the imagination. I wanted to begin as a historian and end as an artist. And I needed the novel to be a praxis toward that reckoning.
This is the same things that James Joyce gets at when he has his alter-ego Stephen Dedalus proclaim: “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” That transformation of “truth” or of “the reality of experience” through the artist’s praxis is a bigger and broader way of being true than a memoirist can achieve.
* I am not a book reviewer but a literary scholar by training and vocation—in the world of literary scholarship, we assume that our reader has read the same work, and thus we are free to speak of what strikes us most, interests us most, without the coyness required of the book reviewer, who must tease and titillate while leaving the most delectable morsels for the reader to discover on her own.