I am not at peace, I tell her. I want to fail. I am hungry for what I am becoming

— Jack Gilbert.

My mother was a piano prodigy. She started playing as a child in Vietnam, and by the time she was a teenager, she was giving concerts. That’s how she met my father – he was in the audience watching her perform, and by the end of it, he had to know this girl. It was the early 1970s, not long before he went to war.

She had dreams of being a world-famous performer. She graduated in Saigon, and then again in Australia after arriving as a refugee. Opportunity lay ahead, but then, the choice: to be a mother, or to be a famous pianist.

So she had one daughter, two, three, and taught piano out of the family home in Sydney’s northwestern suburbs. The world stage was replaced by community halls and living rooms.

Music was passed down like a family recipe. I started learning cello when I was three years old – a one-sixteenth size, almost as big as me. By the time I was six, I was playing on the radio and winning local competitions. At 14, I received my AMusA diploma. Throughout high school, I played in a prestigious youth orchestra, rolling my case in every Friday night for three hours of intensive rehearsal. The next morning I’d catch the train into Circular Quay for four hours of extracurricular study at the Conservatorium of Music.

I didn’t like it, not really. Classical music felt so rigid; I saw myself more in punk rock, with its ragged edges and disregard for rules. But my father often said my talent was bestowed upon me by a higher power – that the cello was my destiny. We would practise together, my mother and me, as the future rolled out before me like a red carpet.

I was set to audition to study at the Con for university – it was the next logical step in my musical career – but I decided last minute that I didn’t want to attend, didn’t want any of it at all. So I stopped playing and went to journalism school instead.

In her debut novel, A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, Jessie Tu paints a portrait of an artist on the brink. The neurotic protagonist, Jena Lin, was a child prodigy violinist who toured the world before her public breakdown at the age of 15. Now 22, she is rebuilding her career after detouring through a literature degree, although this time as an orchestra violinist, not a soloist.

Tu signals from the beginning that, despite the myths of the model minority that loom over Jena, this is the story of a multifaceted young woman trying to carve her own path. The reader first meets Jena as a sexual creature. In the novel’s graphic opening scene she is fucking a bassoon player in a closet before a funeral. The language is crude and abrupt: ‘Pantyhose down. Donut rings around ankle. Cunt salivating.’ Not a page later, she’s performing at this sombre occasion. The novel alternates between these modes, presenting a ‘contradiction between [my] public life and private life’, although the reader doesn’t learn the context for her private life until later on.

Jena’s journey as a musician seems to be predestined: as the granddaughter of a virtuoso, she sees that to excel is to live. She believes the violin is her destiny, and that, as the adage goes, great art and suffering are bedfellows.

Growing up, she is subjected to intense practice sessions. In an early memory, she recalls her grandfather tying one end of a wire to her wrist and the other to the doorknob, and then opening and closing the door to teach her how to bow properly. This exercise leaves her wrists red and raw; her mother asks her to cover up so she doesn’t have to see the physical impact practice is having on her young daughter. ‘If I didn’t have the violin, I would be no one,’ Jena thinks as a child. There is a direct relationship between her prodigious skill and training, and the deterioration of her identity:

The older I grew the more aware I was that offstage I was nothing. I’d stare at myself in the mirror in the bathroom and wonder if one day I’d look and there would be no one staring back at me.

Her fate is seemingly sealed when she is thirteen and her teacher asks her, ‘Do you want to be happy? Or do you want to be famous? Because you can’t be both.’

Violin both provides an escape for Jena and confines her – when she plays, ‘everything is suspended… as though I’ve entered some other dimension’. The enjoyment comes not only from playing, but also from the praise and attention that follows, in a cycle of dependency. Tu deftly illustrates the complexity of the relationship – passages describing Jena playing the violin are rendered with breathtaking beauty, and the character has a clear passion for and understanding of music, but this is undercut with a meticulous control. There’s a tension between the autonomy and self-expression of the soloist, and the requirement to perform from a pre-written score – an idea that is extended as Jena wrestles with her desires against the expectations of family and society.

In an interview, Mari Yoshihara, author of Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music, commented:

Many Asian families associate classical music with Western modernity, cultural sophistication, and upper-middle-class status. So they encourage their children to study music, not always because they want them to become professional musicians but because they believe that musical background leads to upward social mobility. But for many children, classical music is more of an imposition by their parents than a pursuit they chose for themselves, and having to practice for hours every day against their will often kills any pleasure of music.

Yoshihara makes an important point about respectability politics that are subtly rooted in Western cultural ideals, and often inaccessible to the working class. Jena’s upbringing reflects this – as a child, she flies with her mother to Shanghai every fortnight to study with a famous teacher there. It’s a life that is outside of reality for many people, highlighting the classism inherent in the arts.

Yet for all this privilege, Jena recognises that her work, and success, hinges largely upon the creations and directions of white men. Later in the novel, her anger is palpable:

I wonder why none of the music I play has been created by a woman and whether that exclusion was deliberate. What is the point of being any kind of artist if your skin colour or gender excludes you from the choices of old white men, just because you don’t look like them and they don’t see themselves in you?

Indeed, despite the common perception that Asians are well-represented in the classical sphere, the statistics show a different story for both composers and musicians.

A report analysing the music MPA-funded Australian orchestras performed in 2019 revealed that 3 per cent of works were written by female composers, 0.45 per cent were written by culturally and linguistically diverse composers, and just 0.05 per cent were written by First Nations composers.

In addition, the Racial/Ethnic and Gender Diversity in the Orchestra Field report from 2016 shows that in American orchestras (one of which Jena auditions for, then joins), white musicians make up 85 per cent of orchestra members, with Asian and Pacific Islander musicians making up 9 per cent. Though this number has grown over time – the proportion of Asian and Pacific Islander musicians increased by 70 per cent between 2002 and 2014 – the overwhelming majority of players are still white.

In this world, Jena has to push back against white and male supremacy to succeed. Onstage as a soloist, she has all the power and none; as an orchestra member, she feels like just another face in the conglomerate. Indeed, other orchestra members are referred to only by the name of their instrument.

For the first half of the novel, Jena’s professional transgression at age 15 is alluded to, but not named; instead the reader sees the obsessive way in which music and sex consume her adult life. Tu builds to reveal the historical moment her character split into two coexisting selves. ‘Jena Lin, darling Australian violinist, globally adored by lovers of classical music, and Jena Lin, raging sex addict’ are inextricable – the latter birthed in the cracks of the former, both ravenous to at once take up space and disappear.

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing is a Bildungsroman that tracks the maturation of a young woman through the avenue of sexuality. The violin is not the only instrument present in the story – there is also the instrument of the body and self, played by both Jena and others.

Bassoon is the first of many sexual conquests, all described in explicit terms. Alone in her room, Jena watches violent pornography and fantasises about oblivion, both physical and emotional. With men, she disappears into the performance of sex. Similar to her relationship to the violin, pleasure and duty are often indistinguishable:

I don’t even ask myself if I’m enjoying it. I just move my body, the way I’ve learned to move it; choreography inherited from somebody else. I moan. I slither like a performer.

With Jena, Tu joins a class of millennial fiction centring the unlikeable woman. As Rebecca Liu writes, this art ‘celebrate[s] that women too can be dirty, repulsive, mean, cruel, and flawed’, with characters that are ‘pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive’. Ottessa Moshfegh’s vile protagonists, Sally Rooney’s beautifully wicked and stylishly tormented characters, and on screen, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s lauded Fleabag, all fit into this framework.

In this subgenre, sex is often depicted as both a form of resistance and of self-destruction. This is sometimes pathologised, as in Rooney’s Normal People, where protagonist Marianne, who has had a violent, abusive childhood, turns to BDSM; it’s implied that only the damaged could wish for consensual pain to erase, or exacerbate, their trauma.

But there are more nuanced depictions, too. Cat Person, Kristen Roupenian’s viral 2017 short story for The New Yorker, struck a chord with women the world over, myself included, for its uncomfortably accurate depiction of ‘bad sex’ – the grey area where consent is present, but only just. Jena’s revulsion for Bassoon echoes Cat Person protagonist Margot’s contempt for her date, Robert (she remembers Bassoon as a child: ‘he had braces, a scar over his left eye and bad breath that smelt like blue cheese. I felt sorry for him.’) Yet in both cases, the characters carry through with the act, desire and disgust in a tug-of-war as the mechanics of wanting are deployed: ‘there was a kind of exhilaration to it, as if they were dancing,’ Roupenian writes.

This trope has not often crossed the boundaries of race; Jena is notable in this way, bringing the unlikeable woman into a different sociocultural landscape. Stereotypes of Asian women call for subservience and docility, but Jena defies these expectations by being selfish, arrogant and sexual.

In a recent interview with ABC RN’s The Book Show, Tu said of Jena, ‘I made this character a deep interrogation into the psychological and emotional impact that I’ve seen in young women, who do often reach out to sex without knowing why they do it.’ Tu herself has been to sex addiction therapy, noting a correlation between her strict upbringing and her promiscuity upon leaving home: ‘Since I previously had no freedom over my own body, I became reckless with where I took it, who I consummated it with, who I’d let take it.’

Sex takes many forms in this novel: liberation, self-medication, emptiness. Tu places Jena in a number of sexual situations where the lines between these modes often blur. Within these sexual relationships and interactions, race is significant. The novel balances a number of power plays and dynamics, as Jena both defies the white male gaze and submits to it to climb the social hierarchy. As Tu said in conversation with Alice Pung at Melbourne Writers Festival, ‘I knew that [white men] had more power, and I saw my body as the only way to get closer to them.’ When Jena starts sleeping with a Black American man later in the novel, though, she’s the one using objectifying language and fetishising a racialised other. It’s hard to detect any self-awareness, on behalf either of the character or author, of this hypocrisy.

Like Frances in Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Jena becomes involved in an affair with a much older man who is already in a relationship. There is a stubborn self-preservation evident in the way in which both women conduct these affairs. They insist upon an emotional distance that helps them believe, perhaps naively, that they are incapable of being hurt. In Frances’ words, ‘I was a very autonomous and independent person with an inner life that nobody else had ever touched or perceived.’

Openly sexist and racist, Jena’s lover, Mark, is a caricature of white male villainy. He talks about his penchant for ‘TAGs’ (Tiny Asian Girls) and orders Jena to shave her pussy. He asks her not to leave marks, so his girlfriend doesn’t see. At once wishing for intimacy and reviling it, Jena performs for him – the sighs, the moans, the coquettishness – all with a bored compliance. Like Robert in Cat Person, Mark turns quickly to verbal abuse when he does not get what he wants – love. What a strange, disturbing interpretation of it; how devastatingly normal it is for men to conflate desire and control.

Through all of this, it is hard for other characters – and readers – to connect with the largely affect-free Jena, especially as her decisions become increasingly erratic and self-sabotaging. Even her relationships with her friends – best friend and fellow violinist Olivia, artist housemates Mike and Jacob, and bewitching fellow Asian artist Val – are at a remove. She is not a warm character, and regular therapy might provide her with the relationship she needs most of all.

But she has flashes of self-recognition, expressed in self-pitying reflections that stand in stark contrast to the language used to describe her sexual or musical victories: ‘I need a shawl over my gaze to prevent me from looking too closely at my small, defective heart.’

As in so many novels about unlikeable, unhappy millennial women, privilege affords Jena the time to drown in the ennui of her own personal entanglements. Compared to Tu’s astute observations about race and gender, the novel’s approach to class is undercooked. Jena’s move to New York City sees a pointed shift towards more political and feminist internal discourse surrounding the shoehorned plot point of the Trump election, including the eventual slut-shaming of Val for considering sleeping with an older, powerful man to get ahead in her career. ‘Is this worth your dignity?’ Jena asks. This sudden personal reckoning and internal shift feels both on the nose and reductive. The implication, it seems, is that giving up promiscuity is a virtue shift.

As Becca Rothfeld has written of the millennial novel, ‘These are not political novels but novels with characters who are lightly politicized, the way that people in Rooney’s milieu (which is also mine) really are’. She continues that, perhaps unintentionally and paradoxically, Rooney ‘capture[s]…the impotence and hypocrisy that abound in the fashionably leftist communities she describes’, which also applies to Tu’s depiction of the solipsism of nascent feminism.

Even when the unlikeable woman’s flaws are self-evident, the acknowledgment of those faults is sometimes portrayed as absolution in itself, regardless of whether or not tangible behavioural change occurs, in what Katy Waldman terms ‘the reflexivity trap’. The endings of both Conversations with Friends and Lonely Girl seem to confirm this as Jena and Frances both grant space to the toxic older men in their lives for processes of redemption, tying a neat narrative bow of absolution around their manipulative, power-skewed behaviour.

As a critic I share this frustration towards the pathologisation of promiscuity within yet another study of bourgeois millennial malaise; in the end I wondered whether the character had really learned much at all. Yet on a personal level I felt a familiar ache, a thrill to be known by a fictional character – for once, not a white one – who embodied the ugliest, most selfish parts of my own twenties. I remembered that feeling of escape through self-destruction and false intimacy – crawling into bed, into myself, as though towards salvation.

Performance is at the heart of the novel. The gaze is always transfixed on Jena, even when she is alone: the art of arranging her body just right for music, sex, masturbation. The relentlessly violent dance of womanhood.

The exhilaration of that failure, aged 15 – a deviation from the script – then the desperate scramble to climb the ranks again in a search for validation. The lack of an anchor outside of a flawed meritocratic system.

And the mother, who admits late in the novel that managing Jena’s career gave her own life meaning: ‘I was useful to you when you were playing. Without that, I didn’t know who I was.’

I wonder if loneliness is emblematic of the struggle of being – a woman, a daughter, a person of colour, an artist – under the pressures of capitalism. Perhaps it is the singularity underneath all of the performance: sex, music, being the good Asian girl or the one who resists everything. How could you be anything but lonely after all that?

I think of Rachel Cusk: ‘There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all.’

On the rare occasions when I play the cello now, I try to become someone I no longer know. There are whole pieces etched into my brain and fingers – Bach’s C major prelude; Saint-Saëns’ Allegro Appassionato, A minor concerto, The Swan; Fauré’s Élégie – but they are crude shadows of what they used to be. Or, rather, what I used to be. My hand cramps easily now. My bowing is all wrong, leaving white dust too far up the fingerboard.

Many of my classmates from the Con are professional musicians now. I see their names in programs: SYO, SSO, ACO, some overseas. Soloists, their names in lights. I wonder what I might have become if I’d had the ambition, the hunger.

Alone in the quiet, I hear a voice and in my weakest moments, I believe it. It whispers that when I stopped playing the cello, I betrayed an integral part of myself that was formed when I was three years old, and sunk into me like something divine.

That without it, perhaps I am nothing.

Works Cited

Rachel Cusk, Outline (Faber & Faber, 2014).

Ciaran Frame, ‘Living Music Report 2019’ (June 2020).

Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven (Knopf, 2005).

‘Interview with Mari Yoshihara’ (2007).

League of American Orchestras, Racial/Ethnic and Gender Diversity in the Orchestra Field (2016).

Rebecca Liu, ‘The Making of a Millennial Woman’ (Another Gaze, June 2019).

Hannah Reich, ‘Australian novelist Jessie Tu explores the scars of racism, sexism and classical music in her debut novel’ (ABC News, August 2020).

Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends (Faber & Faber, 2017).

Sally Rooney, Normal People (Faber & Faber, 2018).

Becca Rothfeld, ‘Normal Novels’ (The Point, January 2020).

Kristen Roupenian, Cat Person (The New Yorker, December 2017).

Jessie Tu, ‘How I Found Myself in Sex Therapy’ (Primer, 2020).

Katy Waldman, ‘Has Self-Awareness Gone Too Far in Fiction?’ (The New Yorker, August 2020).