Autofiction is growing like a tumor in the body of prose writing; it swells even as the literary forms out of which it spawned slowly shrivel and die. It’s debatable whether the traditional realist novel will even survive this outgrowth of itself, as fiction mutates into autobiography, free indirect style into the first person, Henry James into Karl Ove Knausgård.
Ocean VuongOn Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
Penguin Press, 2019
It was in the 1970s that French critics first diagnosed as “autofiction” a set of symptoms we may generalize as narratives that narrow, or erase, the gap between author and protagonist, while also claiming the imaginative and technical advantages that fiction has over autobiography. Symptoms that may back then have indicated a mere gumboil have by now revealed themselves to be something much larger and stronger, whose bruises and lesions can be spotted all over contemporary writing.
This mutation may well be benign, even invigorating. The most energetic forms of writing today are autofictional, in both European and American culture. Whether they are branded as novels, or memoirs, or personal essays, these are the works that, to my mind, chime most resoundingly with younger highbrows.
How to explain this? For the writer David Shields, who has offered the most referenced diagnosis yet, autofiction is less a genre of writing than a reflection of an entire contemporary condition, characterized by impatience with fiction’s contrivances. He calls this condition “reality hunger,” in a justly famous book by that name. A ravenousness for reality is supposed to have overpowered the older sensibility that for so long indulged fiction’s invented plots and characters.
Shields likens the writing of such novels to “driving a car in a clown suit: you’re going somewhere, but you’re in a costume, and you’re not fooling anybody.” Comparing fiction to such light entertainment is a conspicuous feature of Shields’s argument. Elsewhere he writes: “The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe.” The analogy makes fiction seem, at once, frivolous, childish and antiquated, an outmoded 19th century pastime, unlike the 21st century adult seriousness of autofiction (which rarely does anything quite so clownish as make you laugh).
So is autofiction really about “reality hunger”? Is it simply that we’ve grown up and no longer fancy trips to the fairground, that we now want prose stripped of the clown’s face paint, shorn of the puppetmaster’s strings? I would argue not, especially since the realist novel has always been teeming with reality—with facts and information—and, as Dickens argued in “The Pantomime of Life,” reality is a lot more like the circus, and people much more like clowns, than Shields realizes.
The argument collapses when we consider how autofiction is presented as part of the wider condition of “reality hunger.” Shields invokes the vogue for reality TV, its depictions of “real life” supposedly an analogue to autofiction. This is now a trope in criticism; William Deresiewicz compares Knausgård’s novels to a range of peculiar Norwegian television shows. But it’s hard to see much of autofiction’s splaying of consciousness in, say, The Real Housewives of Orange County, or to see any examination of the authorial self in The Apprentice. (If anything, reality TV—carefully storylined, meticulously produced—resembles the gaudy entertainments of the circus that get such a bad rap in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto).
In truth, Reality Hunger offers a misdiagnosis. It connects symptoms that appear related, but aren’t, while missing the biggest symptom of all: the introspective preoccupation with the self, specifically the self as a writer, that is central to Knausgård, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk, Edouard Louis, V.S. Naipaul, J.M. Coetzee, and now, Ocean Vuong, with his revelatory debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Key to understanding this book (and, I’ll argue, the general rationale of autofiction) is that Vuong comes to fiction already acclaimed as a poet. He’s been profiled in The New Yorker, and been awarded the Pushcart Prize, Whiting Award, Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and, remarkably, the T.S. Eliot Prize, traditionally reserved for titans like Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott. All this was accomplished while Vuong was still in his twenties, and these achievements are amplified further by his status as the first literate person in his family, learning to read aged 11, and as a refugee, born on a Saigon rice farm in 1988 and brought up—via a displaced persons camp in the Philippines—in the hardship of Hartford, Connecticut, one of America’s poorest municipalities.
It’s this extraordinary biography that fueled his poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, which was an expression of Vuong’s search for an origin and an identity. At first this prompts bemusement:
An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl
Thus my mother exists
Thus I exist
Thus no bombs = no family = no me
(from Notebook Fragments)
But the bemusement is ultimately resolved by finding his voice as a writer. The homeless soul of this queer immigrant is finally incarnated in writing itself. As he concludes in his poem “Daily Bread”: “it’s my book / & I’ll say anything just to stay inside / this skin.”
The resolution of the search for the self in the act of writing is also the archetypal narrative of autofiction, including Vuong’s effort. That’s why comparisons are made between autofiction and the Künstlerroman (“artist-novel”). But what Vuong’s turn from poetry to autofiction also, crucially, uncovers is the way autofiction is bound up with the impulses of modern poetry. Since the Romantics, the poet’s vocation has been what Coleridge called “the heaven-descended KNOW THYSELF.” This yearning for self-knowledge, not “reality hunger”, explains autofiction’s generic rationale. Vuong’s poetry, like his novel, like all autofiction, is an act of literary self-inquiry in this tradition. Even the defining pose of autofiction—the equation of author and protagonist—is an inheritance from poetry. It makes no sense to speak of “autopoetry,” because poetry, since the Romantics, already assumes this equation of poet and persona, that the speaker of The Prelude must be William Wordsworth, that the speaker of Night Sky with Exit Wounds must be Ocean Vuong, and this assumption now governs autofiction.
In this way, the narrator of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous can only be Ocean Vuong, even if he’s known inside it as “Little Dog.” For an author to share all but the name with a book’s protagonist is symptomatic of autofiction. It allows the author to lay claim to autobiography, lending the work the authenticity, authority and intimacy of confession, while the simple gesture of a fictional name asserts for the work the aesthetic prestige and freedom of fiction. That’s why Rachel Cusk becomes, in her autofiction trilogy, “Faye”, or more teasingly, Elena Ferrante becomes in her Neapolitan novels “Elena Greco.” This trick, incidentally, works both ways, with some autofictions (e.g. Coetzee’s) ascribing entirely invented experiences to a character with the author’s real name, achieving the same interpolation of confession in fiction, fiction in confession.
Confession is writ into this novel’s epistolary form, structured as a letter to the narrator’s mother. The whole book, therefore, is a series of confessions involving Little Dog’s traumatic childhood, his gay awakening, the ordeal of surviving America’s opioid epidemic, and his emergence as a writer. But like Vuong’s mother, Little Dog’s mother barely speaks English and can’t read, so the confessions are never heard, nor replied to. An aura of tragic futility thus haunts every sentence, made all the more real because we know, further, that Vuong’s real-life mother—the dedicatee of the book—will never read it. Our sense of language as a means of communication and intimacy is overturned by this spectacle of language as a means of division and distance. As Vuong writes in his opening address to “Ma”: “I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.”
This tension courses through the book, between language that alienates and discomfits a queer refugee in a poor, unlettered family, and language as something that stabilizes and centres a successful writer. For not speaking English, Little Dog is beaten up on the school bus. Their house door is spray-painted with ‘Fag4Life’. (It’s red, so he tells his mother it’s a Christmas greeting.) But language is both bully and savior. After being picked on for ignorance of the language, Little Dog is urged by his mother to fight back with “a bellyful of English” (and isn’t a novel a bellyful of English?) While outlining the archetypal narrative of autofiction, Vuong makes explicit the salvific theme of language:
I told you how I came to be a writer… reading obscure texts by dead people, most of whom never dreamed a face like mine floating over their sentences—and least of all that those sentences would save me.
This salvation in language is the only real end-point in a typically plotless novel, which doesn’t follow the conventional logic of event, instead portraying autobiographical vignettes in seemingly random order—I’m sure they’re not random, but there’s the sensation of driftless recollection, like a photo album, haphazardly assembled and reshuffled. You can read it like an album, flicking back and forth through memory. But even that metaphor doesn’t do the novel’s fragmented texture justice. We’re led in and out of scenes over and over, introducing new images, incidents, themes, sentiments, across time and space (Hartford, Brooklyn, Saigon), as if mines from the much-referenced Vietnam War are detonating inside the book’s fractured narrative. Vuong is trying perilously to piece it together.
Writing is often better elucidated by its detractors than its advocates, and that inveterate opponent of Romanticism, Yvor Winters, would have identified here “the fallacy of imitative form,” his bugbear about “employing a disintegrating form in order to express a feeling of disintegration.” But it’s no fallacy: the disintegration is real. Nevertheless, the fragments do culminate in a kind of unity, that of a writer’s consciousness establishing itself, its centre. This intention is plainly admitted in the book’s opening lines, from Taiwanese writer Qiu Miaojin:
But let me see if—using these words as a little plot of
Land and my life as a cornerstone—
I can build you a centre.
The trouble with language being Vuong’s terra firma is that when he traipses off this little plot of land, his writing is less successful. Boring facts about the licensing history of the painkiller OxyContin ensue. So do naïve political affirmations (“One nation, under drugs, under drones”), and naïve personal affirmations (“As a rule, be more.”) But the price of intimacy is often banality. It’s worth it to observe Little Dog’s family life, and the impact, decades hence, of the Vietnam War on families, about which Vuong definitely isn’t naïve. Fireworks and Little Dog’s toy soldiers plunge Grandma Lan, a schizophrenic ex-prostitute for US servicemen, back into wartime. “History moves in a spiral,” Vuong writes, assimilating eastern philosophy’s cyclical sense of time, “the past never a fixed and dormant landscape, but one that’s re-seen.” Nevertheless, we always return to the little plot of language, in which even war leaves its imprimatur. Noting how napalm destroyed his mother’s schoolhouse, terminating her education at age five, Vuong writes:
Our mother-tongue, then, is no mother at all—but an orphan. Our Vietnamese a time-capsule, a mark of where your education ended in ash.
The language of the novel itself is much influenced by Vuong’s earlier lyrics. Prose slips into the compressed epithets of poetry, which also recall the abbreviated pidgin of East Asian immigrants: “nothing-white” (a physician’s vestibule), “whisper-shout” (the sensation of anal sex). Vuong’s metaphors target language itself. A fetus resembles a “comma,” that single image distilling all the motives of child-bearing, as acts of continuation and replication.
There’s much misery here, but such delicate language turns trauma into a triumph. While Vuong’s writing, among other things, reveals autofiction as the delayed-fuse reaction of Romanticism, this processing of pain into art recalls especially the cure Coleridge prescribes in his Dejection ode:
And from the soul itself must there be sent
A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth.
And that’s a pretty good summary of what Vuong achieves in this book.