One New Book, Two Reviews
LET’S GO LET’S GO LET’S GO
by Cleo Qian
Tin House Books, 246 pages
Cleaver’s internship program offers the opportunity to review a new book from a small or indie press under the mentorship of a senior editor. We loved how this summer, Lillian and Audrey were both jazzed about Cleo Qian’s new collection from Tin House, LET’S GO LET’S GO LET’S GO. Read below for two smart takes on one smart book:
Lillian Lowenthal is a recent graduate of Vassar College, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in Asian Studies. Lillian currently lives in Baltimore and is working to complete the first draft of a novel. In her free time, she swims, rides horses, and is teaching herself to sew. Mentor: Moirah Hampton
Growing up half Chinese, I thought myself lucky for having double eyelids. Possession of this Western feature was a benchmark of my identity until I decided to wear winged eyeliner in ninth grade. After drawing a few shaky lines across my eyelids, I stepped back to observe my handiwork in the mirror. I was perturbed to see that the makeup I drew had virtually disappeared. How was this possible? I tilted my chin up and the winged eyeliner suddenly appeared again. I tilted my chin back into a neutral position and the eyeliner disappeared once more. Finally, I realized an uncomfortable truth: for as many years as I had been bothering to stare into a mirror, I had involuntarily angled my chin up so that my eyelids would emerge. If I actually looked at the mirror straight on, I had a monolid. I wondered for a long time what this carefully entertained delusion said about the kind of person that I was.
Similar questions of Asian female selfhood are central to Cleo Qian’s new collection titled Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go. Comprised of eleven stories, this book descends gradually from the vaguely uncanny into the chilling supernatural. Qian’s protagonists are young Asian and Asian American women navigating questions of early adulthood: they are agitated, speculating about belonging, attachment, and independence. Preoccupied with self-actualization, they repeatedly turn to the digital sphere to make sense of the questions that arise for them in the real world. While romance in the classical sense is not a defining feature of this book, queer desire runs like a quiet undercurrent through nearly every story. Most centrally, the protagonists share the notion that selfhood has to be sought out or earned. Qian quietly poses the question of whether or not this is true and gracefully leaves us on the cusp of an answer.
Qian also utilizes the technological landscape to generate unease for the reader and push her characters toward self-actualization. She is preoccupied with the dichotomy between online presence and real-world existence, a motif that finds its way into numerous stories. In the collection’s second story, “Monitor World,” a young woman named “N.” downloads a role-playing game and develops a sexual relationship with a man she meets online. N. quickly learns that the man is not who he seems, forcing her to re-evaluate her identity as a young woman and a daughter. Similarly unnerving technological situations occur throughout the book, allowing Qian to drive home her point: exercising agency online may not teach us who we are, but it will teach us who we don’t want to be.
This collection also explores manifestations of queer desire, communicating romantic longing by focusing on minute fixations that the protagonists have on their female peers. In “The Girl With The Double Eyelids,” for instance, Xiao DengYun feels a deep and confusing connection to her friend, LiLi. There is a particularly intimate moment when Xiao DengYun is cleaning wax from LiLi’s ear. She remarks that LiLi’s ear “…was so pink and soft-looking, like a baby’s. The wax, I was sure, would also be soft and clean.” She continues: “I took the wooden pick and angled it carefully. My fingers trembled slightly.” Here, Qian takes something mundane, like cleaning out an ear, and holds us in the moment long enough that the action becomes a symbol of deep yearning. Through similar moments in other stories, Qian extends the possibility that her protagonists will eventually come to terms with the nature of their desires.
Qian’s characters flex their agency through seemingly small actions. They pocket something that isn’t theirs, trespass somewhere they don’t belong, make a risky phone call, or kiss a person out of the blue. While these decisions seem to spring up from nowhere, they are the tangible effects of the heroines’ slowly overflowing emotions.
Supernatural phenomena, technological advances, and queer attraction culminate in the questions of self-actualization at the heart of this collection. Qian intersperses four stories throughout the book, each of which follows a young woman named Luna at various stages in her life. We get a glimpse into Luna’s life as a high school student, a twenty-two-year-old, a twenty-six-year-old, and a twenty-eight-year-old. Qian rejects chronology—the order in which the stories appear is not linear, and it is not immediately clear that the four stories share the same protagonist. We see Luna struggle with romantic desire and connection to her Asian heritage in all four stories. But the most powerful moment arises in “The One Everyone Knew.” Swimming in a river with her cousin after learning something unexpected, Luna remarks to herself, “There would be no final answer to anything. There would be no arbiter of how they should be, no guarantee of how they were going to turn out, who they would become, what lives they would live, what the outcomes of the choices they made would be…Constantly, they were in the process of becoming.” Although this piece is the last story about Luna to appear in the collection, she is actually the youngest version of herself here. Ironically, her realization in the river would have aided her deeply as she navigates the difficulties that arise in the other stories about her. Through Luna’s inability to retain her own wisdom, Qian remarks on the human tendency to forget the strength and knowledge that is already inside oneself at an early age. Because of our forgetful nature, we must constantly remake ourselves in order to stay abreast of the challenges presented to us.
After reading the stories about Luna, I began wondering whether there was any wisdom from my younger self that I may have accidentally discarded. I thought about my long-ago attempts at winged eyeliner and subsequent discovery of my hooded eyes. The realization that I had a monolid plagued me for a few weeks after the eyeliner incident. But as I was staring into the mirror one morning, I noticed I was going to be late for school. And then I realized that if I stared in the mirror like this every single morning I would be late to school every single day. This led me to the conclusion that my life would not wait for me while I decided whether or not I was beautiful. Like Luna, this knowledge has come and gone as I’ve aged, and, like Luna, the challenge will be learning how to retain what I have already discovered.
In the end, Qian’s characters flex their agency through seemingly small actions. They pocket something that isn’t theirs, trespass somewhere they don’t belong, make a risky phone call, or kiss a person out of the blue. While these decisions seem to spring up from nowhere, they are the tangible effects of the heroines’ slowly overflowing emotions. By the conclusion of each piece, the protagonists stop trying to put words to their feelings. Instead, they allow the world to do what it does, and they do what they can alongside it. One line from “Monitor World” sums up the protagonists’ tendencies most eloquently: “I don’t have to decide right now, she thought, what I feel.”
Audrey Lai is a first-year undergraduate student studying English at the University of Toronto. She hails from Northeast Ohio and is an associate editor for The Trinity Review and a staff writer for The Strand. In her free time, you can find her watching sitcoms, overanalyzing Taylor Swift lyrics, and trying not to trip in platform Doc Martens. Ingrid Hartzell Gallegos
A Chinese high school student’s double eyelid surgery allows her to see telltale visions in the form of tattoos revealing their hidden secrets. A young woman follows her childhood friend mysteriously resurfacing after a disappearance to the remote mountains in order to film a social experiment. An alchemist abuses her girlfriend by controlling her through creating various magical objects.
These are the realities featured in Cleo Qian’s debut short story collection, Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go. The collection contains eleven stories following Asian and Asian American women navigating dystopian, technology-driven realities in a desperate hunt for lost identity, in an attempt to escape the expectations and emotional burdens placed on them, and in a hopeful search of connection in a lonely world. Using speculative fiction and complex, disoriented characters, Qian creates a funhouse mirror of ourselves. In her stories, she reflects back to us an unnerving yet sanguine portrayal of finding connection in a detached world.
There’s a surreal quality to Qian’s writing that permeates through the collection. However, every story’s setting is rooted firmly and unwaveringly in our present realities. While I expected this collection to defamiliarize the entanglement of technology, race, consumerism, and isolation through a traditionally dystopian near-future, Qian’s stories are hauntingly contemporary. It may be this direct tie to reality that made me even more empathetic with each distinct main character. References to our world permeate the stories, such as the fluidity of identity in virtual personas on sketchy online chatrooms, a reminder of our long-gone teenage ambitions in an old AP Art History textbook, and our compulsions to escape from the complexity of social connections in a Japanese otome game. In “Zeroes:Ones,” the narrator’s reliance on virtual worlds for contentment as a substitution for personal connection relies on no fantastical elements to paint a dystopian picture of our reality.
“I spent my time and emotions with people that were not real, literally or figuratively,” Qian writes. “No one knew the extent of my happiness, alone in my room, while I was building the romance points on one of the otome game routes, or when I was thinking about who the person behind Zero-One’s texts might be. Those moments, I was happier than real life ever made me.”
These contemporary objects are treated no differently from the stories’ supernatural elements. In framing the loss of enjoyment in music through a competitive pianist’s aim for perfection in the same manner as demonstrating the complexities of grappling with loss through a young woman’s ability to see ghost residents of an abandoned seaside town, Qian points out the dystopia of the now.
The subject matter of many of Qian’s stories teeters toward dark, with “Digital World” dealing with the male gaze as a panopticon and “Power and Control” delving into emotional abuse and subtle racial fetishization in romantic relationships. However, there’s a clear emphasis on an optimism for potential connection during an impersonal, information age in a globalized and digitized world.
“Wing and the Radio,” my favorite story in the collection, follows Jinyi, a young and ambitious woman pursuing radio broadcast journalism. Originally from a village on the outskirts of Sichuan, Jinyi moves to Chengdu and becomes a host of an advice show of an unpopular radio show on the verge of losing funding. When a group of rising K-Pop idol Wing’s fans begin to write messages for him in their own blood on tour posters, Jinyi’s boss urges her to sensationalize the story by blasting the star. However, in a turn of events, Jinyi earnestly confesses her own inexperience and empathy for Wing and his teenage fans.
Through Jinyi’s radio show, Qian seems to be speaking directly to us. “When I saw the posters by those other girls online, I remembered that I am an inexperienced girl, just like those inexperienced girls,” Qian writes. “…so to all the desperate, lonely girls out there… just know that there are others listening right now who are also uncertain and lost, and listening to the same song tonight.”
Unbeknownst to Jinyi, her sincere message is delivered to Wing through a paranormal karaoke machine, connecting an unknown radio personality with a famous pop star. Isolated and somewhat emotional as a result of his rising fame, Wing is reminded of his attachment to those around him and his capacity to reconnect in a disconnected world.
Qian plunges us into harsh, defamiliarized, and often lonely realities but reminds us that connection in these realities is not impossible. It’s this juxtaposition that creates a frank yet earnest and sincere portrayal of humanity in our technological era.
“As though hypnotized, he stepped closer to the screen and brought the microphone back up to his lips,” Qian writes. “For the first time since Jun brought it up that morning, he recalled the fan who had written him a note in her own blood, and suddenly felt guilty he hadn’t worried about her more… A gentle regret tugged at him, for the boy he’d been, for the parents he hadn’t seen in too long, for Yebin, whom he’d loved too poorly to keep, for everything he’d given up without realizing on his way to the top.”
In each narrator’s literal and figurative gloomy surroundings, they find themselves reaching for glimmers of escape—from heteronormative family values, from an ever engulfing consumer culture, or from a virtual landscape that is ever more difficult to navigate. Qian plunges us into harsh, defamiliarized, and often lonely realities but reminds us that connection in these realities is not impossible. It’s this juxtaposition that creates a frank yet earnest and sincere portrayal of humanity in our technological era.
The women of Qian’s stories are far from passive and docile—they are constantly on the move: to their estranged motherlands, to high school parking lots, to second-rate radio stations, to remote mountaintops. They are in flux, on the brink of breaking out of workplace monotony, of expectations of obedience, of figuring out what it all means, of realizing it doesn’t matter, of finally reaching contact. Outstretching their hands to us, they seem to say, breathlessly, Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go.
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