You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked.
8/10. Excellent. Because someone I wanted to impress recommended it to me. Sheung-King’s debut novel was a quick read, ringing in at just over two hundred pages. In the past, a friend has mentioned the book to me, referencing the tagline that it “embraces the playful surrealism of Haruki Murakami and the atmospheric narratives of filmmaker Wong Kar-wai”. Ah, perfect for Asian American sadbois such as myself. I read it. It was pretentious, sentimental, and derivative. At the same time, I loved it, and I hated myself for loving it. I loved it almost enough to give it a 9/10, but in that moment I faltered. Perhaps if I was five years younger, the novel would have been life-changing.
The book is a story told in twelve chapters, varying significantly in length: the last one is around a fifth of the book. All the previous chapters circle around the unnamed protagonist, a Chinese-Canadian man referred to in first person, and his love interest, a Japanese woman who had been living in Canada for the last few years. The novel consists of anecdotes and story retellings. The first chapter is filled with pillowtalk and framed with a scene of a Wong Kar Wai movie which portrays the strength of their mutual affection. The second builds background of the protagonist’s Asian-American childhood, using the story of the kitchen god. The third is a longer episode recounting a fight that the protagonist had with his love interest, and is the first sign for the reader that their relationship is a tumultuous, passionate affair.
You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked. is devoid of any sort of modesty. There are sensual descriptions of nakedness, but stops short of being smut. What is explicit, is the way it bares proper nouns. It references one Linklater film, and discusses at least two Wong Kar Wai films, and both Coppolas. It casually flaunts Missoni and Trussardi in a way that makes Kevin Kwan look boorish. However, it is most unapologetic in its predilection for dropping authors: Franzen, Murakami (the visual artist is also mentioned), Kundera, Goethe, Ishiguro, and Barthes. Barthes, who rears his head once for Literary Criticism 101, and only appears thereafter in erroneous defenses of Rowling and Card?
The episodic novel lacks any sort of meaningful plot, like the dizzying movies and books that the protagonist and author seem to love. As someone remarked to me earlier this week, this genre of art seems to be about the “vibes” instead of character development or plot progression. But the vibes were certainly there. The book felt like a hazy summer: though a lot of it was set in Canada and Prague, there was much more set in varied temporary residences in Asia. Everything felt humid and temporary, and the protagonist tried desperately to hold onto a feeling that was as equally hot and transient. Longing and alienation were also simultaneous present and just as conflicting as they seem, accurate for a third culture millennial drifting through a confusing young adulthood. The novel is a vivid snapshot of those feelings.
Though the vibes were there, I’m not sure how creative the book really is. As the tagline explains, the style seems to be appropriated from that of Haruki Murakami and Wong Kar Wai, although there is merit in adapting the neon Hong Kong colours into text. The interweaving of various vignettes was also interesting, but not unheard of. Cha’s Dictee is another Asian American work which utilizes much of the same style as You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked., jumping around from narrative to narrative, much like a arthouse film. The plot and ideas are also a bit tired: a yuppie’s quarterlife crisis, a 500 Days of Summer-esque girl dumping boy love story, and newfound Asian American anger.
But as soon as I read it, I wanted to write a book review. I only got around to it this week, like a high school student cramming an English Literature project. The book instantly resonated with me, and I was uncomfortable with the amount of comfort I found in its pages. Like Turning Red, You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked. was written by a Chinese-Canadian, and set in Toronto. I’m wrapped up in references to Spadina, LCBO, T&T, Club Monaco, Yorkville, streetcars, the Gardiner, Cherry Street, and the athleisure fit that all yuppies in downtown Toronto seem to love. I love every single name that the author drops, with the exception of Goethe, but especially Barthes. The aimless young adult existence, yearning for love, and fascination with Asian American identity are all ideas that have graced this blog. Yet for some reason I can’t bear this, to be choking on this melodramatization of my life while all the same wanting more.
If I wasn’t so pretentious and cynical, this book would be an instant favourite, perhaps life-changing and paradigm-defining. In my younger and more impressionable days, I have no doubt that I would have pored over its pages, seeking to glean whatever insight was hidden in its pages. The autobiographical parallels between author and the protagonist are also attractive. But alas I am no longer the young romantic I once was.
In the novel, there is a character named Harold Li, who the protagonist views as a competitor for the attention of his love interest. His portrayal is not particularly flattering, and he is exemplified as the yuppie that all yuppies hate: the one that is slightly more highly paid, but viewed as having much less personality. He gives the following monologue on a book that the protagonist is reading:
“A book like that is so easy to market, you know what I mean? It’s obviously written for middle-aged women who are unhappy with their lives. A great target audience. They have time, money, and the emotional vulnerability that requires art and culture to fill a void. Give the book a vibrant coloured cover, make it win an award or two, and then, wala! All there is left to do is sit tight and wait for the cash to flood in… People think these books are transgressive and whatnot, but in reality, it’s just about appealing to the ideologies that are fashionable at the time. If you play your cards right, you profit. That’s how the world works.”
Harold Li is speaking to me, speaking for me. The problem is, perhaps Harold Li is me. Though I’m far from being in his tax bracket, I hold the same cynicism he does with regards to You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked. Immediately reducing it to ostentatious, uninventive, and saccharine is too close to Harold’s jadedness for my liking. I feel the same way about this novel as I do for many other authors I once enjoyed. I find Murakami’s books hollow and I’m scared they’re too well-targeted at me. Whenever I watch a new movie that tugs at my heartstrings, it’s unoriginal and Oscar bait; a book that does the same thing is too melodramatic and “Oprah’s Book Club”. But I like these things. These speak to my spirit at the same time that my mind rejects them, leaving me conflicted.
Such is the duality of man. The author also craves much of what Harold has, while rejecting all the work that it necessitates. In a sense, Harold and the unnamed protagonist are two parts of a whole yuppie. Though You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked. presents arguments against Harold, it also clearly demonstrates the biased animosity that the protagonist feels towards him. Here my romanticism conflicts with the cynicism that the author is simply plucking at my impressionable heartstrings. Sometimes we are Harold. Sometimes we are the unnamed protagonist. But at all times, we should be unapologetic about the art we enjoy.
Did I enjoy You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked.? Yes, I did. Do I think that You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked. is a good book? Yes, I do. Would I recommend it to anyone who listens? Yes, I would. It is perhaps the book that I am the most excited about that I’ve read this year. Sorry Harold Li.