You know how it is when you stumble onto the work of a writer you’ve never read before and by the time your only pages into the book, you pretty much know you’ve committed yourself to picking up whatever else comes along from this author. That’s what smacked me upside the head when a couple of years ago I dove into Charles Yu’s debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. And now Charles Yu is back with Sorry Please Thank You, his second (after Third Class Superhero, 2006) collection of short stories, a mind-bending collection of speculative postmodernism that is worthy of your attention.
"Standard Loneliness Package" features a narrator who works for a company whose product is the outsourcing of bad feelings - Don't feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you. Sorrow, pain, grief, guilt - for $112 an hour, the cubicle-bound employees of this offshore helpdesk operation will slip into your consciousness and feel the feelings that you can afford to pay to avoid.
I am at a funeral.
I am having a hernia.
I am having a hernia at a funeral.
I am in prison.
I’m at the dentist.
I’m at the prison dentist with a hernia.
The setting is a speculative not-so-distant future, and the narrator's voice is casual (and sometimes humorous), a combination that Yu uses repeatedly in this collection as he did to great effect in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. It fools you - this casual voice - draws you in close like, hey man no problem, which is when Yu hits you with the emotionally meaningful considerations that Yu has on his mind - for instance, the mortgaging of our lives to the daily grind.
Our hero is frequently smitten in Charles Yu's stories.
The protagonist in "Hero Absorbs Major Damage," a warrior, experiences the range of human emotion - longing, jealousy, pride, fear, envy, shame - before he has to come to terms with his ultimate destiny and the revelation that his god might just be the nine-year-old who is playing the fantasy game in which he (our hero) features prominently.
Yu’s postmodern experimentation knows no bounds, and he delves into a variety of forms in pursuing themes of selfhood and relationships. In “Open” the sudden appearance of the word “Door” in three dimensions in a couple’s apartment spurrs them to probe the nature of their intimacy, or lack therof.
“Designer Emotion 67,” the spoken Annual Report to Shareholders of PharmaLife by the company’s CEO in the year 2050, is a sharp example of Yu’s satirical wit, skewering as it does the designer pharmaceutical industry. “Adult Contemporary” is a similarly futuristic story about a character on the receiving end of a high-pressure sales pitch for “The Brad,” a semi-custom lifestyle:
Murray stands there inside his new The BradTM taking it all in. On a flat-screen television in his entryway there is a listing of today’s lifestyle events.
“There’s tai chi by the duck pond at two thirty today,” Murray says, reading from the schedule. “Followed by an ice cream social on the lanai.”
“Yes, yes, there is that. And so much more,” Rick says. He tells Murray that it’s a series of emotional flavors, designer moods, a Palazzo-level recreational narrative.
“Timeshare,” murray mumbles. “You sold me a timeshare.”
“Yeah,” Rick admits, breaking character. “I did, didn’t I?” Rick allows himself a slight grin, a little internal high-five for another sales job well done.
Sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking, and oftentimes both, Charles Yu is a fantastic writer of speculative fiction. Of course, as with any collection, not every story in Sorry Please Thank You hits on all four cylinders, but a few of them do, and the rest of them are still pretty good. If speculative fiction is your bag and you’re ok with some postmodern parlour tricks, give this a go. Or check out How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.