I’ve had few reading experiences as varied as my experience with Ocean Vuong’s debut novel. It is apparent, immediately, from the first page, that the novelist is a poet.
I am writing because they told me never to start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence—I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.
There are so many moments of absolutely breathtaking prose throughout On Earth, moments that cannot be appreciated except on the physical page—which is to say: do not attempt this novel as an audiobook. It’s read by Ocean Vuong—but don’t. If you’re able to do physical, the words somehow hit harder and feel softer consumed as they were written.
There were sections of this book where the narrative was too fractured (for me) to appreciate. In those moments, I wished I understood poetry better as a form because if I did, I’m sure I’d love those sections, too. As it stands, I need enough form to discern shape, I need my sentences to begin and end, I struggle when they bleed into one another without either. Retrospectively, I suspect this says more about me than this novel’s failings.
But still, all of that said, at the end of this novel, all I could do was take a deep breath and appreciate its beauty. There is so much beauty and poetry in these pages, enough to fill a book.
“You’re not a monster,” I said.
But I lied.
What I really wanted to say was that a monster is not such a terrible thing to be. From the Latin root monstrum, a divine messenger of catastrophe, then adapted by the Old French to mean an animal of myriad origins: centaur, griffin, satyr. To be a monster is to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse: both shelter and warning at once.
There is so much I want to tell you, Ma. I was once foolish enough to believe knowledge would clarify, but some things are so gauzed behind layers of syntax and semantics, behind days and hours, names forgotten, salvaged and shed, that simply knowing the wound exists does nothing to reveal it. I don’t know what I’m saying. I guess what I mean is that sometimes I don’t know what or who we are. Days I feel like a human being, while other days I feel more like sound. I touch the world not as myself but an an echo of who I was. Can you hear me yet? Can you read me?
We stopped the truck one time on the side of a dirt road and sat against the driver door, facing a meadow. Soon our shadows on the red exterior shifted and bloomed, like purple graffiti. Two double-cheese whoppers were warming on the hood, their parchment wrappers crackling. Did you ever feel colored-in when a boy found you with his mouth? What if the body, at its best, is only longing for body? The blood racing to the heart only to be sent back out, filling the routes, the once empty channels, the miles it takes to take us toward each other. Why did I feel more myself while reaching for him, my hand in midair, than I did having touched him?
Sometimes being offered tenderness feels like the very proof you’ve been ruined.
Because that’s what mothers do. They wait. They stand still until their children belong to someone else.
They say nothing lasts forever but they’re just scared it will last longer than they can love it.
I’m sorry I keep saying How are you? when I really mean Are you happy?
The door slammed and someone came home and low voices could be heard, the single lilt of a question as it rose, “How was it?” or “Are you hungry?” Something plain and necessary, yet extra, with care, a voice like those tiny roofs over the phone booths along train tracks, the ones made from the same shingles used for houses, except only four rows wide—just enough to keep the phone dry. And maybe that’s all I wanted—to be asked a question and have it cover me, like a roof the width of myself.