Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter written by its protagonist, Little Dog, to his mother about their lives. It bounces back and forth in time, telling its story through short clips of narration, put together in chapters, which are contained within the book’s three parts. It’s an interesting format for a novel, one whose approximations I think I’ve come across before in other works of literary fiction, but it most vividly reminds me of Trisha Low’s Socialist Realism, an autobiographical book of essays that bounces back and forth between anecdotes from the author’s life and descriptions of various works of art. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous bounces from story to story, from idea to idea to create a similar effect, a collection of ideas stringed together to form memories and explanations.
This format caught my attention because I haven’t seen it often and got me thinking about its uses. As someone who struggles with stringing together ideas, examining how people organize their books is helpful to me, and may be helpful to you. Below are a few ideas about why it might be useful, and some examining when it might not.
Use – It’s Sorted by Theme
The book’s ideas appear to be sorted by theme, which is pretty neat. When Little Dog needs something to punctuate his point, he can just pull it in, no explanation needed, and reinforce what he’s saying. He explores each point until it’s complete, with explanations, examples, information for the reader to take and consider. In Socialist Realism, I can flip to a random page and be swept up in its train of thought, ride it smoothly to the next idea. I have yet to try this with On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, but I’m sure a similar principle applies; you can read the whole book, follow its themes through, pick up on threads that run throughout just like any other book, but it’s also fairly legible if not read in order.
Don’t Use – It’s Sorted by Theme
“Oh no,” you may be thinking, “is this article just going to repeat its points twice?” Well, for the most part, yes. What’s advantageous for one type of novel may not be for another, so I think looking at both situations is helpful. Having a book be sorted by theme makes it reflective, a character (or person for Socialist Realism) looking back on their past. However, even with the use of present tense it’s a bit difficult to feel like the scene is immediate. Are you immersed in it? Sure. But the individual scenes are more loosely moored in the story’s timeline. The lack of chronological order makes it so you’re sometimes aware of what happens already, that you miss steps in the characters journey as you skip from significant scene to next. This is not a format I would use to write an epic, where we follow our hero from scene to scene wondering at the next obstacle. Little Dog has obstacles, certainly, but they’re there to be analyzed, not to be surprising. It would be interesting to try to write a plot heavy book in this format, but it would be difficult, as they don’t mesh together neatly.
Use – It Has More Breaks
A lot of books I read just sort of continue without neat breaks, where when you reach the end of a chapter you just find more of a crisis waiting. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous has it ideas and plot that pull you along, sure, but there are so many breaks in a chapter, especially in the chapter on writing, that it’s easier to stop, digest information, and pick up the book again without feeling like you’re being forced to wait for the next episode of your favorite show. I realize that saying this sounds vaguely insulting, as “I couldn’t put it down!” tends to be a selling point for books, but I really don’t think it’s a problem. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous doesn’t seem designed to carry you quickly through the story, but it feels like it should be considered, explored – in fact, I feel that I probably missed a lot because I read it fairly quickly. So if the ideas you’re presenting to your reader are more important than the addictiveness of the plot, then adding more breaks into your work may be helpful. Or may not. I’m nothing if not indecisive.
Don’t Use – It Has More Breaks
However, if your book is meant to be fast paced (The whole “I couldn’t put it down” thing must exist for a reason, I suppose), this format is most likely not the right choice. I’m not at all saying that fast paced books can’t have interesting themes or topics. They can, and the choice to make a book fast paced is. as much an artistic choice, a way of enhancing themes, as making it slower and ponderous is. One’s not better than the other. They both can be successful and entertaining. Sometimes you need to not pause in order to produce an effect, though, and this format is definitely not great in those situations.
Use – It Showcases Language
This sort of goes along with the pauses, but there’s a lot of room in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous to appreciate Vuong’s language. We can take time to appreciate the prose, to examine it. The breaks also give the book an almost poetic look, and since poetry often uses words with extra care, imbuing them with meaning, we pause over Vuong’s choice of language. It’s especially fitting, since On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is about language, about learning it, about connections it can make or break, so of course the words must be highlighted.
Don’t Use – You Don’t Need Poetry to Showcase Language
There are plenty of other ways to showcase a mastery of language. If you have good prose, people will notice no matter what the format of your book is. And words don’t necessarily have to be a defining feature of a book either, so it doesn’t make sense to showcase them if they’re not.
Whatever the advantages or disadvantages, this format is fitting for Vuong’s book, and may be for others as well. There are an infinite number of ways to write a book, so perhaps closely examining one way isn’t the right approach, but it does serve as a starting place, a base to experiment from, or something to consider, and in those ways, it is useful.