Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go by Cleo Qian Reviewed
Cleo Qian’s Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go, set alternately in Japan, China, Korea and America, is reminiscent of a disco ball—no matter which way you turn it, it remains luminous, catching the light and sending shards of brilliance into the air. Forthcoming from Tin House in August 2023, the book is a collection of short stories about Asian women who have reached breaking points in their lives, for whom the worst possible thing is to learn the truth about themselves. “Always have to be the center of attention, don’t you?” asks one of the men in this collection, Goto, directly his gaze at the protagonist of the titular story. “As long as you’ve got one person looking at you, you don’t have to think about any others.” But we, the reader, are looking at these women. Perhaps we are the only ones who are. They ache to be seen, and as we look at them, we learn more about what it means to look, to be overlooked, what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a minority, and somehow, we learn more about ourselves as well.
For N., or Nora, who appears and reappears throughout this collection, at different ages and at different points in her life, being seen is something she desperately craves, but also deeply fears. When she starts an anonymous sexual relationship with the King, she loves the danger of the anonymity, but as she begins to learn more about him, and he becomes real to her, she starts feeling too familiar with him, and he begins to disgust her. This is the truth of all relationships—we only want to get to know each other until we don’t want to get to know each other anymore. This thought permeates the entire collection—Qian’s narrators eschew familiarity, living instead in a fog of anonymity; anonymous sex, anonymous restaurants, anonymous cities, anonymous relationships. Many of these protagonists and narrators are lonely, but they don’t know how to connect. Many of them lack the vital human ability to reach past the veil, and link to other people. If this is because they straddle two cultures—most are Chinese-American, torn between being too American for China and too Asian for the United States—or simply because they are missing a piece of essential human effluvia, it is not always clear. But as these characters flounder, Qian brings out beauty, tenderness, and occasionally, wonder.
Magical realism floats through this collection. In one story, “The Girl With The Double Eyelids,” a young high school student discovers that after her supposedly beautifying double eyelid surgery, common in Asian countries, she can see strange tattoos on people’s skin, which are somehow signs for things that are wrong with them. She never fully learns to read the signs, and as she navigates a complex relationship with her chemistry teacher, the tattoos continuously perplex her. Qian’s use of speculative elements, which are not present in every story, and which are never explained in detail, give the collection a kind of eerie translucence which allows it to feel slightly magical, in a way that many short story collections do not accomplish. Additionally, several characters appear and reappear, like N. (Nora), giving the collection a tightly linked feel, even if we as readers are not sure that the characters are quite the same versions of each other. Different timelines, different versions of the same people, and different possibilities all swim in a murky fog in this collection, but the lucidity of Qian’s prose allows for a specificity of both setting and emotion which gives the reader intense feelings of connection and purpose as they move through these stories.
Queerness, too, emanates through this collection. Many of the female protagonists have strange, tight obsessions with their female friends, a feeling which is never named and is always danced around. Many of these narrators are young, high school or college-aged, and their obsessions with these other women is shown as a folly of youth, even as it occasionally leads to darker consequences. In the story, “Zeroes:Ones,” the narrator laments the loss of her friend, Melissa, who has gotten a boyfriend and become distant, but there is an undercurrent that the narrator has fallen in love with this friend, the source of her anguish about the loss. Only in one story, “Power and Control,” does queerness specifically get named, with a magical realist story about an alchemist named Greta in a vicious, controlling relationship with her girlfriend, nicknamed Keychain. Keychain finally escapes, but not before Greta uses magic in order to control her every motion. Women are capable of bad things in intimate relationships too, Qian seems to be saying. We all are. Queerness is an aspect which runs like an underground river below this collection, occasionally coming to the surface before surging down again, and diving deep into the darkest depths.
Perfection, aimlessness, and what to do in one’s twenties, which eventually turn into one’s thirties, are a recurring theme as well. The transition from high school and college into a person’s later twenties and thirties is a major concern of this collection. How do we grow up? Qian seems to be asking. How do we decide what we want? How do we know what we’re supposed to want, and how do we figure out what we really want? All of these are questions that her narrators are struggling with, around the globe, showing the universality of these concerns. Moving from the perfect bubble of high achievement, good grades, and piano lessons of one’s high school years to the aimlessness of one’s mid-twenties is a recurring concern. Qian does not offer an antidote. Rather, she focuses on the absurdity of these moments of rudeness and grace, the tiny rock bottoms that we all reach, and how we pick ourselves up again—or don’t.
Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go is an intensely vivid collection on a prose level, but on a sensory level, it’s even more powerful. Qian has given a voice to an entire generation of twentysomethings who are just as confused and stressed out as her protagonists are, and her surefootedness and precision shows her strength as a writer as well as an observer. There is much to admire in this collection, and much to learn from Qian—a debut to be remembered.
You can get a copy of Cleo Qian’s book Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go, from Tin House here.
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