In his debut novel On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong points to the beauty of humans grasping for relationship in the context of violence. This beauty, he argues, was not created by the violence but instead resisted it.
Vuong’s method of storytelling offers a different path to approach Advent rooted in a classic form of Asian narrative known as kishōtenketsu. By focusing, as kishōtenketsu does, on the proximity of its characters as a way of driving plot instead of conflict, Vuong’s novel can help us appreciate anew the Christmas story of God drawing near in the Incarnation.
Vuong’s novel is epistolary, a series of letters from a mother to a son, and the son Little Dog’s life mirrors Vuong’s own. Amid the collapse of Vietnam after the war, the son and his mother move to Hartford, Connecticut, along with his grandmother. The mother reels from the war and her resulting PTSD, and her son clashes with American life and grieves the opioid overdose of a friend and first love. He recounts his family history in looping stories and acknowledges how the violence of the war created violence in his family.
His mother abuses him, physically letting out her trauma on his body sometimes with a gallon of milk, sometimes with her fists. But Little Dog recognizes the trauma is shared and still longs to reach understanding with his mother.
“You’re a mother, Ma. You’re also a monster,” Little Dog says. “But so am I, which is why I can’t turn away from you.”
In the ripple effect of the war’s violence—the PTSD and abuse in his own family—Little Dog grasps for a way to connect with his illiterate mother.
“Let me begin again,” the novel opens. “Dear Ma, I am writing to reach you – even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.”
Little Dog writes to ask questions and seek understanding about himself, about his family, about his mother, but he sees that the intimacy he seeks is broken in translation and trauma. His mother, having left school at the age of five, constantly turns to Little Dog during his childhood to translate and explain American words, American life. But he finds that sometimes he can’t. Sometimes he doesn’t have the English word, like “oxtail” at the butcher, but sometimes he simply can’t explain, like what it means to be a writer whose “body of work” is preserving the lives of dead friends.
“There is so much I want to tell you, Ma,” he writes, frustrated. “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.”
The reaching out from Little Dog to his mother is the plot, not the war or the opioid crisis. And it’s this relationship that sits at the core of the novel and reveals beauty to the reader.
“All this time I told myself we were born from war,” Little Dog writes in the closing pages of the novel. “But I was wrong, Ma. We were born from beauty. Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence – but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.”
Vuong uses a method of storytelling called kishōtenketsu, a narrative structure frequently seen in the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki which does not use conflict, and conflict resolution, to move the story’s plot forward. Vuong lets violence circulate in the novel, but he refuses to use it to move the plot. It’s background to the narrative, but not the narrative. Instead the narrative is structured on the search for intimacy.
In the Incarnation, we find a God who does not use violence to motivate God’s becoming human, instead we find a story driven by God’s desire to become close to God’s people.
In the novel, Vuong doesn’t focus on the violence of the war as the driving factor for his family’s migration, instead he shows a family trying to stay together. He doesn’t focus on the rage of Little Dog’s mother, but his insistent desire to understand their shared history together. “[Kishōtenketsu] insists that a narrative structure can survive and thrive on proximity alone,” Vuong said to The New York Times. “Proximity builds tension.”
In Advent, a similar story is told in the Gospels. In the Incarnation, we find a God who does not use violence to motivate God’s becoming human, instead we find a story driven by God’s desire to become close to God’s people.
The narrative tension in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is Little Dog’s pained attempts to draw close to his mother with words. Vuong is conscious of how unusual his method is to American storytelling and American readers. “[In American storytelling,] something is only valuable once we’ve tamed it or conquered it or dominated it,” he said to The Atlantic. But in his novel, “There are no victims and no villains.” No one wins, no one loses. Instead, the beauty of a son joined with his mother is what remains.
Vuong’s rebellion from making meaning from violence can be our own. Bringing the lens of kishōtenketsu to Advent, we recognize that what moves the season’s plot toward Christmas is not violence but proximity.
Cosmic readings of the Gospels may interpret the battle between good and evil as the primary plot of Christ’s coming, but Vuong’s novel pushes us to consider light and darkness as just the stage for God’s drawing near. The real drama of Advent is instead the God who dares to enter the world as a helpless child.