Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Every Morning a Different Universe: Charles Yu’s Sorry Please Thank You

Sorry Please Thank You
by Charles Yu
Guest review by Will Kaufman

Charles Yu’s wit, inventiveness, and raw, emotional openness are all on good display in his new collection of stories, Sorry Please Thank You, but the book isn’t without its shortcomings. With his last book book, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which deservingly landed on a number of awards lists, Yu created something unique by blending a sort of non-fiction confessionalism with science fiction, and philosophical meandering with involving narrative and character development. His new collection uses the same stylistic tools, sometimes succeeding fantastically, but suffers when it bogs down in the meandering to the exclusion of all else.

The collection is broken into sections: “Sorry,” “Please,” “Thank You,” and, “All of the Above.” “Sorry” starts the book off on a high note. Yu begins with “Standard Loneliness Package,” a story about a wage-slave whose job is to suffer other people’s unpleasant moments for them. He goes to work and experiences root-canals, funerals, break-ups and broken legs so that his company’s wealthy clients won’t have to. It’s a heart-breaking story that also does a lot of solid world-building. Next we get “First Person Shooter,” about a mega-mart clerk dealing with a zombie woman who has come in to shop for makeup and clothes for a date. The story works well, and is funny-sad in a way that’s hard to pull off, but Yu makes it look easy.

“Troubleshooting” comes next. A story without a real story, it considers a man presented with a device that would allow him to make whatever he desires happen. “Troubleshooting” relies on a confessional voice to build a character who is ultimately sympathetic – a man who simply desires to be better than he is, but doesn’t know what that means. Even though there’s no real description or action, the story succeeded for me on the strength of its emotion.

At this point the collection turns into a bit of a mixed bag. “Hero Takes Major Damage” is a fine story about characters in a role-playing video game. The idea is one that’s been explored by a number of writers, and it was a little disappointing to see Yu, who has proven himself so capable of doing entirely original work, walk such a well-trodden path. Still, Yu makes full use of his talent for creating emotionally satisfying characters to populate “Hero,” and manages some genuinely funny and touching moments.

In these later sections, we also get “Inventory” and “Note to Self,” both of which follow the trend “Troubleshooting” establishes of largely avoiding scene.

In both stories, I felt ungrounded. “Inventory” strives for that same emotional power, but since the character knows neither himself nor his love interest, it falls short. It’s hard to get invested in a person whose primary trait is emptiness. “Note to Self” gets all twisted up with rhetorical questions and a sort of science-fictional philosophical inquiry into multiple dimensions. Again, the story occurs in a sort of void, the action being a man writing to his alternate selves, the setting being the piece of paper on which he’s writing.

This sort of speculative thought experiment won’t be unfamiliar to fans of Yu, but in How to Survive it worked because it was part of the larger whole. The character, the world, the story, the stakes – all of that groundwork had either been laid earlier, or was interspersed with the more abstract moments.

There are some real highs in the rest of Sorry Please Thank You.

“Open,” a story reminiscent of Donald Barthelme’s “Balloon,” projects metaphor into reality with great success as it explores a failing relationship by dropping a huge, floating word “door” into the couple’s living room. It just gets stranger from there. Some of Yu’s best traits as a writer are on display in this short piece – one of my favorites from the collection.

“Human for Beginners” and “Designer Emotion 67,” are genuinely funny and human, and “Yeoman” might be my favorite spoof on the Star Trek universe since I was twelve and got my hands on the Star Wreck books. Yes, Star Trek has been spoofed to death, but to the best of my knowledge no one has made a Kirk-analog quite so nuanced in his creepiness. “Yeoman,” of course, also has those darn human and involving characters that Yu seems to be able to summon so effortlessly when he wants to.

Sorry Please Thank You also gives us “The Book of Categories,” a story that exists somewhere on the same philosophical spectrum as Borges’ The Library of Babel and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. The story describes a book, passed from person to person, that comes with a tool allowing any page to be sheared in half, creating a new page. The book defies Zeno, its pages proving infinitely divisible, leading to an endless tome that is still only a few inches thick. It’s a genuine experiment on Yu’s part in terms of both content and style, and it also hints at tremendous hidden depths, suggesting a story that could be revealed endlessly if one could only split the pages and read what lies between. While some of the stories in this book have stuck with me for their content, this is the story that has kept me wondering about what more it might contain, and I think that’s a wonderful gift to give a reader.

Overall Sorry Please Thank You is certainly worth the price of admission. When he’s on his game, Yu occupies a space similar to George Saunders, but with the added frisson of Yu’s ability to make his work feel like deeply personal confession. His blend of inventiveness and emotional accessibility allows his stories to take up residence in your head and heart, and continue to unfold and glow for days.

Will Kaufman's stories have appeared in both science fiction and literary journals, with more coming soon from SmokeLong and Litro.  He also contributed the text for UFOs and Their Spiritual Mission from Social Malpractice Press.  He has an MA in Creative Writing from UC Davis, and an MFA from the University of Utah.  You can find him online at, or follow him on Twitter @specwill.

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