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In “You Are Eating An Orange. You Are Naked.” the 2010s have never looked so 1770s

With its footnotes and bibliography, its obliqueness, abundant references, and curious title, Toronto’s Sheung-King’s “You are Eating an Orange. You are Naked.” broadcasts itself as a work of high-minded fiction. Its comfort with Nietzschean concepts, citation of Judith Butler and Roland Barthes, casual inclusion of phrases like “heterotopia” and “hegemonic,” and fluency with assorted luminaries from global cinema and literature (there’s Han Kang, Kafka, Mo Yan, Milan Kundera, and Haruki Murakami, to note just a handful) only adds to the book’s intellectually-armoured qualities.

If nothing else, this debut novel-like piece of writing composed of a dozen story-like pieces is surely not striving with much effort to become what Barthes called a “readerly text” (which might be better known as airport fiction).

Mentioned a few times, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” written by a young, deeply saddened Goethe in the winter of 1774 following a bout of unrequited love, plays a pivotal role; it hints at the beating heart of this intriguing (albeit challenging) novel: young love, grief over loss, and much agonizing over life’s unknowable yet often painful unfolding.

Before the emotional heights — raging anger, blistering critical attacks, seething jealousy, a flood of self-loathing directed inward and outward — that arrive in the final two pieces, Sheung-King’s tales recount scenes from a pleasantly metropolitan affair. Whether in Macao, Hong Kong or Toronto, the young male narrator (he’s a “nice guy,” he hears, but also, he admits, “a boring person”) captures sweet, sour, and prickly episodes — in restaurants, at clubs, in bed — with a strikingly attractive young woman originally from Japan. The relationship seems doomed from the get-go, for the simple reason that he appears to love her considerably more than she loves him. He attempts to entice her by accommodating her whims and telling her gnomic fables.

By the time the final two pieces appear, the three-year affair is over and he’s a romantic mess, memory-drenched and still pining for bygones. It’s a story as old as Werther: the 2010s have never looked so 1770s.

In the aftermath, he’s a marvel of spite — ripping apart the work of one empty-headed filmmaker and one orientalist visual artist. In a fury and lashing out, he’s a dynamo, witty and rapier-edged in equal measure. Compared to the nice guy Sheung-King has portrayed earlier, this lonesome, self-pitying guy is the one you want to stick around for: he’s not especially kind, but he practically sets the page on fire.

A resident of Salt Spring Island, Brett Josef Grubisic is working on his fifth novel, “My Two-Faced Luck.” He teaches at University of British Columbia.

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