By Lua Valino de Jong
The following is a review of two literary pieces, Autobiography of Red (1998) and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019). Even though it is not necessary to have read these to grasp what is written here, I would recommend doing so, as these genre-transcending works speak for themselves.
The recent novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by the unconventional poet Ocean Vuong, follows the steps of the work of fiction Autobiography of Red, by the lyrical author Anne Carson. Together, these two books create a hybrid genre that fluctuates from prosaic poetry to lyrical prose. Both a statement on how words can be redefined and how they redefine us, Vuong and Carson’s work show parallel accounts on personal identity, filial ties, and romantic longing.
Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red recounts an ancient myth originally told in Stesichorus’ Geryoneis; about the monster Geryon, slain by the hero Herakles. In the modern retelling, Geryon navigates his childhood and youth as a winged, red boy. After the broken love of an abusive brother and a vacant mother, he tries to find comfort in the youth Herakles. More importantly, he struggles to come to terms with his monstrous self, laying out the question of ‘who am I?’. Thus, Geryon’s experiences show the uncertainties of a shifting identity and how love plays a role in reinventing oneself.
Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a heart-breaking letter from a boy, Little Dog, to his estranged mother -an immigrant who cannot read. “Dear Ma,” Little Dog begins, “I am writing to reach you -even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.” He chronicles the isolation experienced by his family, Vietnamese immigrants in the USA, segregated by culture and language. He also explores the transient tenderness of his relationship with a white boy named Trevor. Overall, Little Dog’s story bears witness to “the yearning for connection that afflicts immigrants” (Corrigan).
Both literary pieces dwell in the riveting inner world of their main characters, whose identity, family ties, and romances are masterfully conveyed through a synthesis of prose and poetry. Carson and Vuong’s sentences, without being limited by a rhyming scheme, roll over the readers’ tongue. Carson also employs a metric layout that alternates between a long verse and a short verse; thus, resembling traditional metric schemes without being limited by them. Vuong wavers between prosaic paragraphs and single verses, departing even further from conventional metric structures. Thus, a myriad of themes are brought together by this hybrid format of poetry and fiction.
Both works also achieve unity through the masterful use of literary figures, mainly that of the recurring metaphor. Carson repeatedly focalizes the word ‘red’ -a term that becomes all-encompassing. Falling in and out of love, yearning for skin, filial affection… they are all red in the main character’s eyes. Likewise, Vuong eternally returns to the concept of ‘tenderness’, present in all the spheres of the protagonist’s life. Even that which hurts most becomes tender. Therefore, many themes are conceived through the use of recurring metaphors.
Accordingly, Autobiography of Red and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous play with the prosaic and poetical conventions, as well as with recurrent metaphors, to create their own hybrid literary world where multiple themes can exist as one. And, thus, they establish themselves as two of the most remarkable literary works published in the last couple of decades -which you should definitely read!
Image source: https://unsplash.com/photos/hjwKMkehBco