New Releases: 2019, Part Two
Disappearing Earth – Julia Phillips
Disappearing Earth begins with the abduction of two young girls in Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula. Is it a mystery? Nope. Thriller? Nope. Each succeeding chapter takes place during one month of the following year; these chapters are self-contained stories, each told from the perspective of a different character. Is it a short story collection? Nope. Debut author Julia Phillips has an endgame, but Disappearing Earth is less like rafting down a river and more like summiting a series of mountains: each is challenging and rewarding in its own right, and only once you have climbed them all can you truly get a sense of what lies in the landscape below.
The chapters seem disconnected at first. POV characters in some chapters will make cameo appearances in others. The abduction of the two girls lingers like a spectre throughout the story, always an influence but never a focus. But as you get deeper into the book, you will notice thematic threads beginning to weave their way from chapter to chapter. I am somewhat hesitant to reveal what those threads are, because discovering them for yourself is one of Disappearing Earth’s great pleasures, but I must do so if I am to continue this review. If you’re already sold, stop reading here!
One theme is the distrust of foreigners, and more specifically what defines a foreigner. The Kamchatka peninsula is effectively isolated, cut off from the world on three sides by the sea and to the north by Russia’s inhospitable landscape. And before the collapse of the Soviet Union, virtually no one came in or out. But now Kamchatka is open, and tension simmers between immigrants and the native people, both of whom believe they rightfully belong. It will be impossible for American readers not to see Disappearing Earth through the current political lens, and the parallels are pointed and intentional—but because of the locale, never didactic.
The other prominent theme is womanhood. Every chapter in Disappearing Earth is told from the POV of a female character: they are dealing with everything from friendship and parenthood to homophobia and abusive relationships, and they are all living in the shadow of the abduction and its two defining qualities—the abductees were girls, and the girls were white. Phillips is particularly deft at placing you in the heads of characters who have so internalized the ingrained misogyny of our modern culture that they have become blind to it, and she wields this wisely.
Disappearing Earth refuses to offer clean resolutions. As much as you might want a character to tell someone how they feel or break up with their bad boyfriend, Phillips knows that you don’t get through grief overnight or shake off the shackles of abuse in a day. She respects these struggles by letting them continue beyond the boundaries of the story. That’s why the ending of the book, sharp as it is, doesn’t quite work: it cuts the Gordian knot of real life with cheap platitudes and unearned affirmations of hope that don’t mesh with the rest of the story.
Ultimately, the ending is a minor quibble. So is Phillips’ prose, which often feels self-conscious and desperate to impress. Disappearing Earth succeeds where it counts—Phillips has an aggressive willingness to bend and break the conventionality of narrative for her purposes, and her ability to tease themes out of the subtext without slipping into didacticism is well beyond the talents of most debut authors. I am eagerly anticipating her future work; it’s sure to be good.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong
If you were on the internet in December 2017, you likely encountered Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” and the conversation which surrounded it. The story concerns a young female college student who sleeps with an older man; when she attempts to end their relationship, his behavior turns toxic. In the midst of the #MeToo movement, this led to heated debates regarding which of the two characters was at fault and whether the woman in the story was experiencing a standard scenario for women in modern America. Perhaps the most interesting response to the story was a phenomenon in which some people—mostly men—interpreted it as a non-fiction account of Roupenian’s personal experiences, despite the prominent text at the top of the New Yorker page which declared it FICTION in no uncertain terms. You can probably guess why.
I bring this up because Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, has a deceptive quality which brought “Cat Person” to mind; more than once while reading it, I had to remind myself that it was a novel and not a memoir. Even a brief glance at Vuong’s life story will make it clear that there are elements of autobiography in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, but it’s still fiction at the end of the day. The deceptiveness doesn’t stem from similarities between Vuong’s life and the life of the novel’s narrator, Little Dog, however—it stems from Vuong’s uncanny ability to split your soul with his utterly convincing characters.
Nothing in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous feels false. Vuong is a poet, and it shows: his prose is liquid, hypnotic, dreamlike, and it somehow never becomes purple. And his characters feel ripped from real life, fully dimensional from the first word. I don’t even know how to speak about his work in anything other than superlatives—Vuong, who is only thirty years old(!), is, quite simply, one of the finest and most mature writers I have ever had the pleasure to read.
It feels reductive to even address what On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is about, because it could be about a plastic bag lying in a parking lot and Vuong would probably transform it into a heartbreaking meditation on the nature of humanity, but just so we’re all on the same page: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an epistolary novel about Little Dog, a gay Vietnamese immigrant who is writing to his illiterate, abusive mother about his experiences growing up in America. As that description should indicate, this is not a light read. If you are sensitive to depictions of abuse (including animal abuse), addiction, or homophobia, please tread carefully.
Sometimes, I read a book and I want to review it so I can (hopefully) convince others to read it. Other times, I just want to purchase dozens of copies, hand them out to everyone who passes by, and say, “Trust me.” On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is one of those books. Trust me.
Reviews by Erin Larson