“Let me begin again” lets us know right away the shape of Ocean Vuong’s novel is malleable. That this novel is an attempt at entering a conversation--that before we are even witness to the novel, a telling has already happened. I get the sense after this opening line that a big breath has been taken, that this novel is a kind of patience--revision, reworking, slowly down, trying to tell a new way.
I love this description by Jennifer Huang from a Rumpus review of Vuong’s novel, which unpacks this opening line as:
I am thinking of beginning as a shape. Clay on the wheel. Wet hands. I’m thinking of beginning as--yes--“to open, open up”--but I’m also thinking of how tornadoes start, how it’s a conflict of proximity, that when certain forces come together they create instability--and how much that is like being a person, being this person, Little Dog, how his proximity to his mother, his grandmother, his country, Trevor, himself, all create this sort of swirling taking-in-spinning-out shape. A shapeless shape. A constantly growing, diminishing, moving, destroying, preserving, windful thing. A thing that leaves new shapes in its wake.
It’s a book that breaks rules about what books are supposed to do and be. Maybe that’s what makes it so beautiful.
Because ALSO yes, this is a book about beauty. About fragility and temporality. How a whole generation of monarchs is lost with a single frost. How buffalo plummet one after another off a cliff. How love--when we’re in it, made of it, hungry for it--devours us, even as it opens us beautifully up. On Earth we’re brief. We’re temporal. There’s a prettiness to it. Yes.
I immediately loaned my copy out after finishing it, so I’m writing this from memory. I’m writing this from memory and isn’t memory what Vuong’s novel dives in and out of, creating a hem between Little Dog and his mother, to whom he’s writing, for whom he’s doing so much remembering, a reader who cannot read this English text, isn’t memory unreadable, untranslatable, aren’t the memories we have the most difficulty unpacking almost packed-in by someone else, an outside force--a war, a trauma, poverty, racism, homophobia, the gender binary, etc?
I remember the flitting way the novel refused to be linear, how everything touched on everything, how at the end we’re at a place before Trevor ever died, how half-way through the novel, paragraphs become enjambed and the form is broken because our capacity to tell certain stories are too.
Let me begin again.
I was underlining sentences on every page.
Underlining as a way of keeping, preservation, of showing, yes, I stopped here, and I held you.
I loved that ending--how a herd of buffalo plummeting to their death transformed into a flock of monarchs. How Little Dog races his soul out of his body, however briefly. How Lan gave herself a new name and so claimed some small beauty for herself.
In Hannah Gadsby’s famous “Nanette,” she says, “We learn from the part of the story we focus on,” and in this novel, Vuong doesn’t focus on his mother’s monstrousness, or not in the way you would think. He focuses on her strength, the transformative and protective nature of love, the feebleness of it, how love can reside still even in an abused, monstrously-named thing.
That retelling is an act of reshaping.
That the act of telling is an act of love.