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Arthur Book Club Takes an English Class

Written by
Abbigale Kernya
Evan Robins
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay
July 5, 2024

Arthur Book Club is a monthly (ish) column in which the co-editors of Arthur set out to read, digest, and reflect upon a book of one (1) editor’s choice. The onus falls to the curator to write an introduction for their selection explaining their rationale, and for the remaining editors to respond in whichever way they feel compelled. This month we are reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, selected by Abbigale Kernya.

Arthur Book Club Takes an English Class
Graphic by Evan Robins


When we first agreed to do an Arthur book club this summer, I told myself that I would not choose an Ocean Vuong book. It should not surprise anyone close to me that Vuong is my holy grail of a writer. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was the first *real* book I read outside of elementary YA novels, and it fundamentally changed who I am as not only a reader, but in a way, I think it changed who I am as a person too—it’s my favourite book of all time.

Vuong’s writing is raw, and unbelievably human. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a semi-autobiographical novel that follows a letter written by a son to his mother who cannot read. It details coming-of-age in a quiet, observatory way. Little Dog, the main character, traces the threads of nostalgia as he reflects on his relationship with his mother—a Vietnamese illiterate immigrant—and the existence of war within his bloodline.

I vividly remember sitting in the bay window at my mother’s house and just feeling so incredibly entranced by Vuong’s writing. It was the beginning of the pandemic, and holding this portal in my hands that unlocked, for the first time, an appreciation and admiration for writing as a craft.

It’s one part of storytelling to, you know, tell a story, but it’s an entirely different ballpark when an author is able to so beautifully convey a vulnerability within the page written with the most delicate sentences. It’s hard sometimes to find the words to talk about my respect for Vuong’s writing without risk of repeating myself and falling short in the face of such an esteemed subject.

When I first read this book, I was going through the motions of a large shift in my family dynamic. It was a confusing, and angry time in my life—one that mirrors the main character’s relationship with his family. It would be lost on me to not admit this, as I am very aware that my personal connection with Vuong’s work no doubt hinders my ability to read his work critically. 

I wanted to pick a book for this book club that would force an interesting discussion between my co-editors, and when I thought more about Vuong and came to understand my inability to separate myself from this novel, I became morbidly curious as to what both Evan and Sebastian would have to say about it.

Photo: The New York Times (


Hoo boy. Abbigale, I am so sorry for what I’m about to say.

Listen, I was really excited to read this book. Abby raves about Ocean Vuong books, and besides a couple blips in her Goodreads history I have no reason to distrust her judgement. We share much the same view on poetry (it mostly sucks) and on English Literature students (they’re mostly annoying), so I had pretty good expectations going into this!

It’s not that I was disappointed by On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Not exactly.

I’d just come off reading Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters when I picked up Vuong. Beukes’ novel is a high-concept extreme horror thriller whose prose and fourty-year-old-writing-fourteen-year-old syndrome leave somewhat to be desired. In other words, it is maybe the furthest thing from Vuong’s novel of which I can think (barring my next book club pick).

Broken Monsters is long, its prose is blunt, and its characters are plot devices without interiority whose lives I don’t really care about. By contrast, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous makes much of its brevity with Vuong’s careful attention to his prose, the fullness with which he animates his memories, and the book’s complex, interweaving structure. It all smacks of a writer who is trying very hard.

So believe me, then, when I say that I feel bad for not liking this book as much as I would like to.

In the abstract, there is a lot I like about this book.

The personal essay is one of my favourite genres of writing, and by consequence I read a substantial amount of autobiography, memoir, and personal essays. I appreciate both the thoughtfulness and skill required to relay personal experience in service of an ultimate “point,” and I think positioning embellished recollection within the context of a framing device is often one of the most challenging and significant creative feats which separate the artistry of memoir from the utilitarian mode in which a lot autobiography tends to reside.

However, the minute I picked up On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous I knew something with absolute certainty, without so much as needing to check Vuong’s Wikipedia page or read the “About the Author” blurb: this book was written by someone with an MFA. 

You can smell it in the prose, and the structure, and the artistic “decisions” to forego numbered chapters in favour of vaguely-defined sections which flow one into the other. You can smell it in the metaphors, the introspective rumination, the insistence that not a page go by without saying something superficially profound.

Most of all you can smell it in the framing device.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous purports to be a letter from son to mother who cannot read—the book jacket and introduction both boldly make this declaration. All the same, the prose feels concertedly moulded to fit this device. Vuong tends to append chapters with a sentence or two addressing his “Ma,” as though to remind the audience of the conceit of the book to which they’ve submitted themselves.

It feels, at worst, like Vuong is reaching through the page to ask “did you get it? Do you understand my book?” which feels all the more frustrating in a book so painfully, obviously aimed at Creative Writing students.

This authorial insecurity is perhaps a hallmark of many a debut novel, though it nonetheless undercuts the eloquence to which Vuong is obviously posturing. This is not Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters (much though that’s an unfair comparison). This is not, for want of a better term, a novel committed to its own bit.

Vuong’s constant attention to the restrictive, self-imposed device through which his own book is framed—as well as his repeated invocations of Roland Barthes—rather than aiding the reader in suspending their disbelief, merely draw attention to the moments when the prose feels at odd with its own pretentions.

What I’m trying to say is that Gorgeous doesn’t read like a letter addressed to a mother. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t read like a letter at all.

I admit, the epistolary novel is a difficult medium in which to work. Hell, Jane Austen tried and failed to do it. Still, given the medium of the letter’s integral importance to the epistolary genre, it seems a given that the author should really have to nail that singular element, lest they—like Austen—be forced to rework the material in a different avenue.

A good framing device does not require the reader to be constantly reminded of its presence. That’s the cheap-and-dirty, “know-it-when-you-see-it” taxonomy which I find to be a fairly reliable determinant of quality. 

When you watch, say, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, you’re not constantly wondering “what’s happening back in that art class from the start of the movie?” The narrative trusts you enough to remember that’s how the movie started when it resolves that narrative thread, no matter how much later that happens to be.

Mind you, I’m not saying that all framing devices should be relegated to merely bookending the narrative of a novel. Wuthering Heights’ conceit is woven throughout the novel to great effect. We learn about Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship in lockstep with point-of-view narrator Lockwood as he learns more about the events which happened at the eponymous residence decades prior to his arrival and slowly pieces together the story.

One can seed a superficially obtrusive framing device throughout a story in a way that is actually beneficial to the narrative—consider the bedtime story which frames The Princess Bride, for instance. The key difference between a conventional framing device, and that of an epistolary novel is that in the latter this quality is not optional, but inextricable from the form the novel takes.

Such is the barrier that great epistolary novels like Dracula and Frankenstein are implicitly working against. Never in a novel written in letters do you want to think “hey, this doesn’t really sound like a letter anyone would actually write,” and yet, that is what I found myself thinking at several points throughout On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

Vuong’s constant reminders as to how the book is supposed to be framed merely serve to inject friction into the reading experience. When the reader is consistently presented with digressions that address the narrator’s mother, they are forced to ask “why would anyone actually write a letter to their mother recounting events their mother had experienced but they hadn’t?” “Why would anyone write a letter to their mother who they admit, up front, cannot read?”

Ask yourself these questions enough times (and “enough” is not that many!) and they quickly become distracting. This distraction is to the detriment of the novel as a whole.

Even when the book is good (and there are moments when it is undeniably excellent) the framing device diminishes the enjoyment of the bits I really like. 

Pages 35–44 are formidable, largely because they eschew all of the rote navel-gazing that has characterized the novel to that point. The twenty pages after this section, the “A” plot of which I really like, are undercut by a lengthy digression about Tiger Woods whose point I understand but whose inclusion feels sledgehammer-heavy-handed, and—again—the interjection of the framing device just as the flow really starts to get going.

Saying that, I think I’ve come to an understanding of what I find frustrating about Gorgeous’ conceit. This is a book that smacks of indecision. This is a novel which doesn’t know who or what it is about.

The evidence of this indecision is evident from the first page, when the pronouns “me” and “I” appear before the pronoun “you.” This is a letter to someone, but not about them.

This is a book that oscillates between first and second-person narration, which cannot decide whether its project is biographical or autobiographical. This seems an effort on Vuong’s part to temper the eccentricities of the second-person narrative, inaccessible as it is to many people.

However the sacrifice he makes in service of accessibility is that of artistry. A novel in the first-person—epistolary or not—is less, well, novel than one written entirely from the second-person perspective (and even that has, admittedly, been done.)

The result is that reading this book feels like voyeurism.

Despite being addressed to his mother, the narrator is perennially aware of his own audience. Perhaps he is writing to his mother, but he is writing for you, the reader.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a performance in prose, deliberate, rehearsed, and polished to the point of complete transparency. Vuong does not come off as either a deft or an intuitive writer—someone whose words rattle off stream-of-consciousness like—though there is much to be admired nonetheless about intentionality. 

That said, intentionality is often at odds with authenticity. A rehearsed confession acquires the feeling of falsehood. The most soul-baring admissions lose impact if it feels like someone at Peguin Random House LLC has spent too much time editing them.

I feel like this book has been focus-grouped to pull heartstrings.

Once you’ve noticed this trick once, everything thereafter tends to fall flat.

This is a criticism which I level at queer writers and MFA recipients in equal measure. It is also a criticism of which I fail to absolve Vuong, a queer writer who holds an MFA.

I mostly checked out of the second half where On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous adopts the narrator’s perspective who, in turn, largely drops the pretense of addressing his mother.

I imagine some people might find it surprising that I lost interest, given this is the portion where the novel gets Gay, but then, why should I care about that?

I’m gay, sure, but a different kind of gay than Vuong. Reading stories about teenage boys dry humping doesn’t really speak to my queer experience, and that’s fine.

Besides the obvious addendum to my earlier criticism about who, exactly, would devote so much of a letter to their mom to a Call Me By Your Name-esque recollection of one’s own queer coming-of-age, the Call Me By Your Name-ness of it all speaks to the artifice of it. I’ve heard this story before. I know the beats of it. 

Perhaps my proximity to queerness, or my having read enough autobiographical fiction written by gay men privileges me with the ability to dismiss queer-coming-of-age narratives—no matter how flowery and confessional—on the basis that this is what queer people always write about, which can be just as true as the fact that these are personally significant to the people who write them.

However personally significant, or heart-wrenchingly Master of Fine Arts-tistically articulated, no amount of symbolism and metaphor slotted in where Sufjan Stevens once scored a motion picture soundtrack can break On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous of its conventional shackles,at least to me.

I get exactly what he’s doing—why Vuong mixes mentions of 50 Cent with Chopin. It's a symbolic juxtaposition of “high art” and “low art” about as intuitive as—I don’t know—comparing Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World with Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (though in execution, less profound).

It’s an old trick, a safe bet. As safe as writing a coming-of-age story about being a young gay man in love.

A few nitpicks before I conclude:

At times, Vuong’s prose—though technically extremely proficient—seems to lack something. Sometimes what it lacks is a point—phrases such as “A story, after all, is a kind of swallowing,” sound compelling, but if I dwell on them too long I find myself befuddled in no positive way.

Sometimes I mean this to say that it feels as though a sentence is literally missing words. “To bake a cake in the eye of a storm; to feed yourself sugar on the cusp of danger”—neither clause feels complete. Vuong’s tendency towards poetry’s tools of ambiguity and brevity are, in prose, his stylistic undoing.

Finally, the title. For some reason, I always assumed it was “On Earth, (comma) We Are Briefly Gorgeous.”

When I look at the cover, the abbreviation in “We Are” always bothers me. On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous has a nicer cadence to it, don’t you think? You come down hard on the “Are,” you emphasize embodiment and agency. To abbreviate that, to make “We Are” come out as “wir” cheapens it, I think. It makes it sound weird

Thank you, Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

In summation: the reason I say all this is not because I hate this book, or because I think I could write it better. I have too much respect for what Vuong is trying to do with We’re Briefly Gorgeous to ever feel comfortable merely damning it with faint praise.

Publishing a novel puts you in the unenviable position of having other people read your work—that alone is worthy of admiration. Were this a truly bad book, I imagine that I’d wind up having far less to say. This is a book that opens with three pages of praise, after all. More even than being noticed, it begs to be talked about.

Again, I come back to the MFA-ness of Vuong’s book. 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is self-important—that is to say, it knows exactly how important it wants to be. I think this self-importance is the real friction at the heart of the matter. It makes the prose better but the vibes worse. 

It’s like trying to watch the Palme d’or-winning Triangle of Sadness with your father—one of you hates it because you haven’t been to film school.

So to round it off with niceties, I think there is a lot of merit in this book. I understand exactly why it was published, why it bears the inscription “New York Times Bestseller,” why it’s a favourite of book clubs and lit majors alike.

On Earth is a staggering accomplishment for a debut novelist. It is a commendable achievement for a queer, Vietnamese writer. That I don’t feel it works as a whole is not a singular indictment of the moments when it shows so much promise.

Vuong’s prose, while self-assured, is mired in the metaphors and similes and imagery that make this feel like a book with its own reading list attached. I know Vuong is capable of brilliance, but it might require leaning more into the 50 Cent than the Frédéric Chopin for those outside of Creative Writing programs to see it.

I wanted to like On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I criticize it not because I hate it, but because I wish it could have been better.


Having completed most of a PhD I’m familiar with forcing myself to read books that I’m not necessarily into. Now that I’m thirty, however, I have made a promise to myself that I won’t feel bad when I don’t finish books. Any book I pick up at this point in my life needs to inform as much as it entertains. I need it to expand my world in a meaningful way. 

Reading fiction and having big and “original” thoughts about it is no longer my job—except I guess in this particular instance—and I generally feel that those whose job it is are pretty bad at it and boring when they try. 

This is partially why I’m no longer in academia. At the end of it all, I couldn’t stand the posturing and the unnecessarily complex ways of articulating what are usually very simple things. It needs to be stated that I spent the better part of a decade unravelling metaphors and making haughty arguments about authors’ clever use of language. 

I was the worst, and that’s why you should take my opinion seriously.

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is the kind of novel I would have devoured during my early graduate studies, especially as I worked on my M.A. on the work of Dionne Brand and Rawi Hage. Twenty-two-year-old me probably wouldn’t have much time for the person I am today, and that’s probably a good thing, but with saying that, the same goes for my current reading habits when compared to what I was doing in 2016.

For the record, I still adore the writing of both Brand and Hage, but if I were to read them now, I would no doubt read them differently. None of what follows are critiques I would level at either author.

All this being said, I made it to page 36 of Vuong’s novel before becoming engrossed in Stephen Maher’s new political biography of Justin Trudeau, which I read over the course of a rainy Saturday when I was supposed to be playing softball. Re-reading the previous sentence I am aware how this makes me look but the cool thing about being thirty is I don’t really care! 

Now let me get serious.

This book isn’t for me. I mean that literally. It’s a poignant reflection on intergenerational trauma, displacement, immigration, diaspora identities, queerness, and living in America. I have no first hand experience of any of these things, but I have plenty of academic understanding of where books like Vuong’s fits into an ever-expanding canon of contemporary immigrant and first-generation North American writers. Vuong’s voice and his novels are needed. 

While I admittedly didn’t get far enough to see (I did flip through the latter half) the novel also deals with the ravages of addiction—something I do have personal experience with, and something that I’m not always receptive to reading about in fiction. 

Frankly, I have enough real stories on this topic and know deeply the human costs both for those of us who survive and those who don’t. Often, fictionalized accounts are oversimplified in their proclivity to dwell on the almost inevitable death of the addict despite everyone else’s good intentions.

But since I’m being asked to contribute something of substance here, let me continue with a more critical take which is less about the content than about the formal conceits and tone of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Let me begin by making it clear that I had every intention of paying careful attention and finishing this book. I highlighted approximately five different references to monarch butterflies—their annual migration being a rather overt symbol of the protagonist’s family’s own migration escaping the violence and war in Vietnam—and took careful note of the places where language fails to capture exactly what characters wish to express to each other and, in some senses, to themselves.

But after reading the first 36 pages and flipping to the parts about drugs, I felt tired. 

I had grown tired of lines like “the human eye is god’s loneliest creation”, “What is a country but a life sentence?” and “I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say I am writing as a son.”

These are nice, vaguely poetic lines—sure. But they don’t actually mean anything, or conversely, they could mean anything you want them to. It’s literary jargon, which is far worse than academic jargon, because it begets more of itself about itself.

In essence, the process works like this: The more authors with MFAs or advanced degree in something like English literature or cultural studies are praised or analyzed by critics in those same fields for being deep and poetic and “reflective of our times” the more their work ceases to be accessible to an average non-university educated reader because, to put it bluntly, that’s not who these books are for.

The end result seems to me that writers begin consciously or unconsciously writing for an audience rather than in a way which serves the story. They know that the pull-quotes will sell it and they’ll probably end up on an English 101-type courses at a number of universities.

From there, authors write more books which require at least a rudimentary understanding of say, Roland Barthes, and the more their work begins to resemble and reflect that criticism. In the classroom, books like Vuongs become great teaching tools because students and instructors alike really don’t have to look too deep. Indeed, they can just read the first 30-odd pages like me and probably have sufficient understanding to draft a final paper after they skim the abstracts of some recent papers on postcolonialism to bolster their works cited page.

It’s a terrible and vicious cycle in which writers of fiction begin to lead the critics towards their sources in obvious and never tantalizing ways, while doing no favours for themselves or readers.

Notably, it took Vuong until page 7 to invoke Barthes’ Mourning Diary

There is a self-consciousness in works like On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous which seems to be begging some poor graduate student to write a thesis about it. As I alluded to above, the novel is eminently quotable, but these short bursts of highly quotable material don’t support the story being told in any productive sense. They’re jarring outbursts in an otherwise affectless piece of work. The fact the book is itself so tonally flat is weird, given that what is being related is extremely compelling and important.

When I made the trip to Take Cover Books to pick up Vuong’s novel I also picked up Georgia Toews’ debut novel Hey, Good Luck Out There which I proceeded to read over the course of two week nights. The two novels are similar in the first person narration revealing the traumatic pasts of the protagonists and fraught family relationships, but differ vastly in the way the authors present their narrator’s relationship to these issues.

Toews’ book deals explicitly with addiction and recovery and does so in a nuanced way that presents the complexities, insanity, and self-doubt of the narrator as she navigates early sobriety. The motivation behind the book is nothing more than survival with the story of the narrator and all her attendant anxieties, doubts, and fears laid bare for the reader in one stream of consciousness, chapterless, rant as if to underscore the emotional state of the narrator as she learns to live without a chemical crutch.

The conceit, however, of Vuong’s just never felt believable and it forced me to wonder who exactly this “letter” (and by extention this book) is for? Why is it being written? And who actually talks to their Mom like this—especially when the mother is revealed to be so deeply flawed, human, and full of life. In comparison, the narrator simply seems detached from the real world and prone to lapses into psuedo-poetry. 

When I taught literature, especially first-year undergraduates, I would do my best to ensure students came away from the class with an understanding of how the form of a work informs content, and vice versa. In really good writing, form and content work in unison, and the best writers can get away with forcing conflict between the two to create something interesting.

We don’t need books to tell us stories, we need them to move us towards a greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us. When it’s clear an author is playing with the relationship between form, tone, and content intentionally, it can be a very effective way of transmitting a story. The book becomes a conversation rather than an author merely telling you a story.

Authors who are capable of doing what I outlined above subvert expectations in ways that move the story forward, create and develop character, and underpin the meaning they wish to get across. That’s hard to do and the ones who do it, do it very well and, this is key, they do it subtly.

At the end of the day, though, it’s not for me to determine whether or not On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous fails to uphold its promise, but I’ve read more than enough novels to say it could do better.

After 36 pages, I felt like I pretty much had the book figured out and heavy-handed metaphors, when repeated and delivered with seemingly no self-awarness, humour, irony, or even obvious relation to plot, are always difficult for me to digest. It can feel at times like Vuong thinks if he doesn't re-introduce a symbol every eight pages, I might forget what the book is about.

I can assure any prospective authors out there that I won’t forget and if I do, it probably wasn’t worth remembering or reading about anyways.

As a reader, and I may be an outlier in this respect, I don’t need to have the meaning stuffed down my throat. The flowery, vague language Vuong employs feels like it’s pandering and unnecessarily verbose, again forcing me to ask who this book is for?

The short answer is not me, at least not right now. And that’s okay. Again, it’s also not up to me to say. You’re the one who read this far in a review written by someone who admitted up front they didn’t even read the book. What does that say about you? 

Maybe more importantly, what does it say about me?

Let me end with this: Vuong’s novel opens with the line “Let me begin again” indicating that what we are holding is not the first attempt at writing whatever it is we find ourselves reading here. There never truly is a beginning or an end in fiction, no neat date lines which might alert us to a specific or contained time and place. Even where there are we know they’re artificial. The form of a novel allows us to be shifted rapidly and without much effort on our part between times, places, and points of view. Rather we are always entered into the action exactly in the middle of something—that being the scene our author has consciously decided on, with the beginning always an illusion and a choice. 

Maybe I’ll begin On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous again one day, just not now.

Thank you for reading the inaugural entry in the Arthur Book Club. Join us again soon as we talk about Evan’s Book Club pick: Gretchen Felker-Martin’s newly-released sophomore novel, Cuckoo.

Photo: Macmillan (
Severn Court (October-August)
Theatre Trent 2023/24
Arthur News School of Fish
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Severn Court (October-August)
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Arthur News School of Fish

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A rich text element can be used with static or dynamic content. For static content, just drop it into any page and begin editing. For dynamic content, add a rich text field to any collection and then connect a rich text element to that field in the settings panel. Voila!

How to customize formatting for each rich text

"Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system."
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