WHAT CHARLES YU DOES VERY WELL — it is a long list, but this may be its most notable entry — is to create strange and disturbingly normal alternate realities. In his first novel, How To Live Safely In a Science Fictional Universe, Yu conceived of Minor Universe 31, a universe filled with people widely, albeit unhappily, using time machines. He took sci-fi theories and ran them through a sort of literary normalizer, applying ample wit, pop-culture references, psychological insight, metaphorical flair, and a vital sweetness (his young, isolated protagonist, in search of his father, even has a stray dog for a pet). Overflowing with quasi-scientific jargon, the novel was exciting and funny and, at times, downright spooky, much like the quantum theories that Yu invoked. But most of all, for a story about a time travel mechanic, it was unfailingly realistic.
In his new collection of stories, Sorry Please Thank You, Yu no longer constrains himself to the pre-requisites of realism — or, to be more accurate, the appearance of realism. Freed from this yoke, he takes off in every narrative direction with the glee of a school-kid released for summer vacation. Set in a video game world reminiscent of the 1980s arcade hit, Gauntlet, “Hero Absorbs Major Damage” is a geeky, tongue-in-cheek adventure tale about a hack n’ slash video game warrior suffering a crisis of confidence. “Yeoman” follows the imperiled final week of a crewmember on a Star Trek-like voyage as he grapples with a homicidally bored captain. “The Book of Categories” debates the existence of a mysterious book — a formally intriguing, hypnotic story that reads as if a Zen koan had been rewritten for a computer operating system. And then there is “Designer Emotion,” a cheerfully cynical monologue delivered at the board meeting of a pharmaceutical company that formulates emotions. Besides Yu’s exuberant inventiveness, the stories’ only easily observable commonalities are timorous first-person narrators who usually mean well or second-person narrators who instruct, challenge, and occasionally discomfit, and a sly sense of humor that carbonates the lighter stories and lightens the darker stories.
Of course, any focus on innovation will result in a few missteps, and that such a sustained demonstration of originality and experimentation can inspire a complaint illustrates just how thankless it is to be a fiction writer. Nevertheless, there are some entrants in the collection that spin out of control. Halfway through an odd, gauzy story about an enigmatic protagonist named Charles Yu, “Inventory” starts to feel overly long, its scrupulous vagueness slipping toward blandness; and “Open,” a dark story about a trans-dimensional apartment swap that imperils a romantic relationship, offers a meta-fictional ending that sounds correct, but there is something hasty and unconvincing about it, as if Yu simply pressed the Ambiguous Lyrical Conclusion button on his keyboard. But these are, admittedly, quibbles, and if they are the cost for the conception of a magnificent story like “Standard Loneliness Package,” well worth it.
Set in an epoch when technology allows emotions to be bundled into packets of information and electronically transmitted, “Standard Loneliness Package” details the life of a young worker at a company that outsources grief and pain. Despite the Phillip K. Dick-esque high concept, the story has a brilliantly subdued tone that boasts a staccato rhythm closer to Kurt Vonnegut. “Root canal is one fifty, give or take, depending on who’s doing it to you. A migraine is two hundred. Not that I get the money. The company gets it. What I get is twelve dollars an hour, plus reimbursement for painkillers. Not that they work.” It’s the sheer normalcy of the narrator’s attitude, at the start of the story that is so immediately affecting. It isn’t seen as in any way unusual to spend one’s days experiencing the trauma of strangers, and just as in real life, unfairness and cruelty are routinized and ignored. And Yu’s decision to let the protagonist’s dissatisfaction and fear develop gradually, to come out in brief moments of disclosure, confirms just how subtle a writer he is. When the protagonist confesses, “I don’t know. I’m trying not to feel sorry for myself. I just thought there might be more to it than all this,” and then immediately adds, “[s]till, I’ve got it better than some people,” it’s the swiftness with which he rushes to insist that everything is okay, manageable, fine, that breaks your heart — as this story does, again and again.
While Yu has drawn many comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut for his entertaining and adept satire, and to Douglas Adams for his intelligent and inventive silliness, Donald Barthelme seems an overlooked literary forebear. Yu is eager, even fervent, about formal experimentation in his story collection. Half of the stories eschew a traditional narrative entirely: a frequent variant for Yu is a bizarre user manual, as in “Troubleshooting,” about a linguistically scrupulous wish-granting device, and “Human for Beginners,” a funny primer about extended family. Yet perhaps the Barthelme omission is, ultimately, an accurate one, as Yu’s postmodernist leanings have their limits. Unlike Barthelme, Yu does not court absurdity; rather, he entertains a darkly whimsical ache, and while he may bend and distort form in the pursuit of originality, he rarely abandons either story or character entirely. Even “The Book of Categories,” that fascinatingly odd logarithm of a story detailing an abstract and cryptic volume, has at its deep center a father’s heartache.
As readers, we are all the better for Yu’s astonishing mix of wild imagination and meticulous restraint. Of the three polite phrases that comprise his title — Sorry Please Thank You — only the last is of true relevance here. No sorries, Charles. Just thanks.