Miscommunicated Love: Sheung-King’s You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked.

You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked. Sheung-King Book*hug press 2020, 195 pp., $20.00


Early in Toronto-based writer Sheung-King’s debut novel You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked., the protagonist, an unnamed apathetic translator, starts to tell his lover the story of a Buddhist priest who wanted to enter the Western Paradise. On his journey he meets a butcher, who had the same goal of entering Paradise but felt it wouldn’t be possible because of his profession. When the priest agrees with the butcher, the butcher begs the priest to present his heart to the great Buddha and reduce his sufferings. The priest agrees, and then “the butcher clutched his knife, and with a single, skilful stroke, he cut out his own heart, handed it to the priest, and died.”        

Before the narrator can continue, his lover interrupts him:

“You: Alright, stop. That’s enough.
Me: You don’t want to hear the rest of it?
You: Why did you think it was a good idea to tell me a story like that?
I was reminded of the story by the knives on the ceiling, I want to say, but decide not to.
You: Your stories are shit.”

The exchange functions as a perfect subtext for their relationship: instead of recognizing the relationship itself is in decline—that the communication is failing—the narrator tells an East Asian folktale which his lover rejects, and then insists that it is “[s]omething about this hotel or Macau” that is to blame. Book*hug bills the book as an embrace “of the playful surrealism of Haruki Murakami and the atmospheric narratives of filmmaker Wong Kar-wai,” a statement which does not fully describe the experience of reading this rather intoxicatingly unique narrative.

The novel centres around an unnamed young man and his lover only referred to as you or she, exploring the shifting parameters of their relationship as they meet and separate across the globe.

While the book wasn’t written in a COVID-19 world, it unavoidably will be read in one. The globe-trotting protagonist—who over the course of the book finds himself in Toronto, Macau, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Prague—was a jolting reminder of how rapidly the world has changed. The protagonist and his lover are unnamed and fairly enigmatic, but the physical locations they inhabit are concrete and tangible. Toronto streets are named in enough detail that anyone with a working knowledge of the TTC network can tell that they’re on the 510 Spadina streetcar heading north to Bloor as they pass “the CN Tower and the Air Canada Centre” and the “LCBO at King and Spadina,” but specific physical and psychological traits of the lovers are not overtly present.

The absence of character names and descriptions gives the novel an intangible, almost dreamlike quality—as though as readers, we are living with an impression of a person rather than with a fully-developed subject. And yet, we can’t help but feel as if we know these people through the linguistic chess games they play and the sentiments they choose not to articulate. The narrative manages simultaneously to be both frustratingly generic and highly specific. Frustratingly generic, as folktales are, by nature, common stories known by entire populations; highly specific, as it is the individual reactions to those folktales rather than the moral of the folktale itself that drives the narrative of the entire book.

The absence of character names and descriptions gives the novel an intangible, almost dreamlike quality—as though as readers, we are living with an impression of a person rather than with a fully-developed subject.

That intangibility is an expression of the primary love language the lovers use to communicate with each other—short stories that provide impressions of meanings rather than clear assertions. She will tell an anecdote from her childhood; the protagonist will offer up an old Chinese folktale in return. He uses folktales his mother told him and myths he’s heard in passing to fill the silences in their relationship. Some will be familiar to avid readers. The story of The Legend of the White Snake, which the novel tells as Black Snake and White Snake, is counted as one of China’s Four Great Folktales, and has been told at least since the Ming Dynasty. Its familiarity to Western readers likely comes from its rewriting in John Keats’s 1820 narrative poem, Lamia. Both stories centre on a magical snake who takes on a human form before falling in love with and marrying a young man. In Black Snake and White Snake, a suspicious priest convinces the husband to serve his wife a magical wine that will reveal her true form; in Lamia, this is done by the philosopher Apollonius. Both ploys are successful, and both wives are forced back to their original form to the horror of their husbands, who dies from the shock and heartbreak. This is where Lamia ends. In Black Snake and White Snake, however, the snake goes on a dangerous journey to restore her husband to life, even though she does not believe he will love her. Once he is brought back to life, he admits he still loves his wife, and they are reunited. The protagonist refuses to allow the story to end with the Snake’s reveal and demise of the marriage; he continues retelling the folktale until the couple are happily reunited. This functions as a metaphor for the lovers’ relationship; he does not want to let their love die and will continue to aspire for its survival. But when the protagonist finishes the tale, asking his lover if she liked it, she responds with “I finished all of it,” showing him her empty bowl. He naïvely retells a happily-ever-after story to a woman who isn’t even listening to him; it is as if they are having two separate conversations, and they can no longer rely on their linguistic love-language to sustain their relationship.

It is in the types of folktales told, and the responses each character has to them, that is most revealing to the reader. At first the lover is more obscure and hidden, simply because she leaves the narrator early on in the novel, which is told mostly through his perspective. Once she returns, however, she becomes the more knowable and tangible character for the reader, while he becomes little more than a passive reciprocal of her presence. It is her actions, physical description, and decisions that he obsesses over, and therefore reveals to readers. The shift in narrative perspective continues the protagonists’ passivity. There is a deliberate elision in the second person address between subject and love object in the latter part of the novel, where you becomes she and the protagonist shifts from the addressor to the addressee. His passivity remains even when he is the you, as the new narrator states that “you realize that you miss this— you miss waiting for her—the feeling that there is something to look forward to.” The protagonist is only active when around her; she is all he desires. When he finally offers her a story about his past in the last twenty pages of the book, it is of their first meeting, specifically his first impressions of her: “you really knew how read social cues, knew when to sip your drink at the right time, and knew the right moments to laugh.” This is, notably, his most revealing story that isn’t a myth or book summary; of course, it isn’t even about him. Even when the protagonist finally takes the opportunity to reveal something deeper or truthful about himself, he remains ambiguous, as he is not even the protagonist of his own memory.

Recognizing that he misses waiting for her takes a greater significance with the inclusion of excerpts from A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes (1978). Although Sheung-King includes a number of critical concepts in the latter half of the book, the repetition of this Barthes segment stands out: “The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.” It is useful to note that Barthes continually altered his initial definitions of romantic love; in A Lover’s Discourse, he revised his definition away from his arguably more famous work, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, published just a year earlier: “The subject who says I love you is like the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name,” with the implication that “the very task of love and of language is to give one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.” That shifting definition of love is mirrored in the slippery relationship between the book’s lovers, but as an inversion rather than a repetition. Rather than use one phrase to communicate a plurality of meaning, Sheung-King uses different folktales—different phrases—to communicate the same meaning. The diversity of the protagonist’s folktales and fiction are an alchemy of his singular love and devotion to his lover; his definition of what his love and their relationship is evolves depending on their geographic location. Her replies, however, unearth the fundamental flaw in the relationship, in that their communication is failing. In this context, the folktales can be read as a love-language of miscommunication, one which is unable to communicate the intimacy the narrator desperately wishes to convey to his lover. Even while the narrator defines himself and his place in the world through his love for her, that love is unsustainable and eludes him. It is yet another example of his ambiguity and passivity: he relies on something so intangible for definition, and cannot evolve to communicate intimacy in a way his lover understands.

In this context, the folktales can be read as a love-language of miscommunication, one which is unable to communicate the intimacy the narrator desperately wishes to convey to his lover.

Sheung-King offers no easy answers for understanding his ambiguous protagonist, or for comprehending how intimacy is expressed or maintained. However, that may be precisely the point: as his lover says, “[t]here’s not always a moral or a central meaning. Sometimes shit just happens.” Sheung-King’s You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked. is an enthralling debut.

About the author

Amanda Brown is a recent University of Toronto graduate, where she studied English Literature and Political Science. She currently works as an administrative assistant and permissions coordinator at Oxford University Press, and is working to complete her creative writing certificate at U of T’s School of Continuing Studies. Her writing has previously appeared in Praxis Englisch, a German magazine used to teach English in the classroom, and Post City Magazine, a Toronto-based newspaper.