The title—You are eating an orange. You are naked—gives away that this is not an ordinary novel.
In his debut, Sheung-King chronicles the gradual dissolution of a man’s romance with a Chinese-Japanese manic pixie dream girl through sharing brief vignettes of their relationship. The effect is disorientation. The first chapter plunges into a film, and it’s not clear if the narrator is living in it, or simply aspires to be. The couple visit Macau, his birthplace, but the girlfriend mysteriously disappears back to Hong Kong without notice after they decide to spend an afternoon apart.
The disorientation from the cinematic beginning continues, undoubtedly accentuated for some readers as hanzi and kanji are dropped into the text without translation. (English phrases and references are, on the other hand, lavishly footnoted later in the novel.) Memories of his upbringing and family are interleaved with his musings as to why his girlfriend abruptly left and his increasingly inebriated interactions with Macau locals and finally the police on his way back to Hong Kong.
Due to her treatment of him, it is difficult not to perceive the relationship as doomed, but he draws the reader back further to other moments in their life together. The reminiscences of their relationship are studded with retellings of classical Chinese myths and parables, scenes from films, and other modern novels: some invited by the woman, as if she were inviting her own Scheherazade to try and prolong the relationship with intrigue.
“Is it storytime?”
“How’d you know?”
“I can tell when it’s storytime.”
“You stare at me for a bit and you bite your bottom lip.”
At other times, the story is invoked as a counterpoint, or indirect commentary on their own relationship and communication.
“Am I mean to you sometimes?” you ask.
I sense there’s more you want to say. I remain silent. Another black cat disappears in the hollow of a tree. Leaves fall and the sky is turning pink.
“I think I’ll be nicer to you if I quit my job.”
“You think so?”
Instead of answering me, you ask, “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Where’s the moon? It’s not even dark yet.”
“Do you know what that means?”
“What what means?”
“The moon is beautiful, isn’t it? Do you know what it means for a person to ask that?”
I shake my head.
“When I ask the questions, I’m not actually asking you to confirm whether the moon is beautiful or not. In the Meiji Era, Natsume Soseki translated the English phrase I love you as The moon is beautiful, isn’t it? He believed that feelings should be expressed indirectly rather than directly. And to him, that question—the moon is beautiful, isn’t it?—perfectly captured the state of affection known as love.”
For a second, I wonder if your occasional meanness is an indirect expression of love. Probably not.
As the novel progresses, the threads of the story become clearer, that the narrator is desperately in love with this woman who seems to elude any hint of commitment. It’s not evident whether this is a deliberate choice, in that explanatory footnotes appear and more exposition is given, as the narrator’s own desires become clear to him, or that this is due to the writer’s storytelling style. Amid what appear to be detours into other stories, moments appear where the allusions illuminate the status of the affair, and give Sheung-King the opportunity to skillfully weave the elements together.
I still wonder if telling you the story “Snow in June” when we returned to Toronto was the right thing to do. I told you this story, and then you quit your job. I don’t know where you are right now. But whatever. Maybe debating whether something was the right thing is not the right way to go about this situation at all. I told you a story, and afterwards you quit your job and went somewhere, and I haven’t heard from you since. The three events have no correlation. Maybe, as in the story itself, there is no right and wrong. Most of the time, all there is coincidence.
At other times, the references strain to be relevant, and perhaps shocking. The title of the novel, for example, comes from a romantic interlude in Toronto, where they mostly reside.
I find you sitting on the red couch in the living room with your legs crossed. You are eating an orange. You are naked. Above your head hangs a black-and-white photograph of Ai WeiWei giving the Hong Kong harbour’s financial district the middle finger. I take out the Polaroid camera and take a photo of you. In the photograph, you are naked, a piece of orange is sticking out of your mouth, and you are giving the middle finger. You like the picture. A week later, you slip it into my wallet without me noticing. I will carry it around from then on.
This passage is footnoted with a description and commentary on the Ai exhibit of which this portrait was a part; it is also representative of the ways in which the author borrows from other artists. Perhaps the author would like to be a literary equivalent of filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, and his knowledge of classical and modern literature appears to be broad: this novel is an interesting debut, and hints of possible depth shimmer through the haze.