Maybe it’s time for bookstores to devote shelf space to a growing genre: Autofiction. As the name implies, autofiction is autobiographical fiction, starring the author, often written in the first-person point of view.
There are many examples: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic account of his life, “My Struggle.” Rachel Kusk’s triology whose protagonist is a novelist. Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series. Almost any novel written by Charles Bukowski.
Enter a talented young writer to the genre: Ocean Vuong. Already an admired poet, Vuong’s debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” belongs on the autofiction shelf: first-person narrator who, from the distance of having become a writer, looks back on his coming-of-age era.
And what an era it was: The main character, Little Dog, was born in Vietnam; raised in Connecticut; abused by his mother; protected by a schizophrenic grandmother; ignored by his absent, violent father; bullied in school; introduced to his sexual awakening via a relationship with an older teenage boy.
Vuong’s novel checks a lot of popular boxes in current literature: immigrant, victim, other, survivor.
The novel takes the form of a letter from Little Dog to his illiterate mother, who will never be able to read what is written. This is an interesting irony, and also a prudent technique, because some of what Vuong writes no one would want to show their mother.
The strength of the novel is its fragmented narrative that weaves together and tears apart Vuong’s childhood, up until the time he escapes to college. The scenes in which something is happening, such as conflicts with his mother, pulling his grandmother’s gray hairs, or hooking up with his boyfriend, are vivid and compelling. The writing is mostly beautiful and often literary, as you would expect from a novel with such a title.
The weaknesses of the novel are the flip side of its strengths. The narrative lacks traditional storytelling elements, such as character arc, motivation, and plot. There was nothing story-related to propel the reader forward, and the short novel took a while for me to read. There is too much reliance on impression, atmosphere, and philosophical announcements musings. And the writing, while at times inspiring, is just as often overblown and showy.
I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more from Vuong. He’s talented. I’d like to see him write about something other than himself. Although, I confess: I would love to write an autofiction novel. Problem: My life isn’t that interesting. I could always embellish the ordinary and invent interesting parts. That’s why it’s called autofiction.