In his new story collection, Yu (How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe) draws from both sci-fi and literature to conjure a world of emotionally stunted people, unable or unwilling to cope with reality and the love or loss that it entails. With somewhat mixed results, the book charts eclectic territory, from a zombie in a megamart to a new pharmaceutical drug that generates a sense of purpose, and explores retreats from reality and emotion. In “Standard Loneliness Package,” Yu imagines a technology that transfers guilt, heartbreak, and other bad feelings onto the employees of an “emotional engineering firm” based in India. In “Adult Contemporary,” which recalls George Saunders, a man trying to buy a new life realizes that he’s a character in someone else’s story. Less successful stories delve into the workings of fiction itself; Yu wrestles with ethics as he imagines himself as a character struggling against his author in “Human for Beginners.” At their best, the tales amusingly send up American consumer culture, but Yu’s fondness for self-reference and literary games leads to some dead ends. While Yu’s imaginative allegories are mostly too obvious to be genuinely thought provoking, they’re nonetheless an impressive sendup of contemporary life. Agent: Gary Heidt, Signature Literary Agency. (July)
From the Publisher
“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. . . . 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. . . . 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.” —Los Angeles Review of Books
“There's some of the cerebral gamesmanship of Jonathan Lethem, the resigned sadness of Kurt Vonnegut, the Phil Dickian paranoiac distrust of consumer culture. But Yu's voice, sensibility and approach are unique, especially in the ways he wrings humor and pathos out of stripped-down syntax and seemingly passive protagonists . . . The stories deliver more than their fair share of bitter laughs, philosophical conundrums and existential gut punches.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“A mix of science fiction, absurdist humor and Beckettian monologue, with storytelling techniques that twist narrative into a computer-esque objectivism; think Donald Barthleme's strangest pyrotechnics in a Philip K. Dick or Haruki Murakami world . . . [Charles Yu is ] the computer century's heir to Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury.”
“Yu’s workman-like sentences are unexpectedly emotive, while also being almost always very funny . . . As with his critically acclaimed, much-adored 2010 debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Yu’s new baker’s dozen of satiric stories tell of a future that’s really just an exaggerated present . . . Like the best science fiction writers, Yu provides seemingly gratuitous logistical information to mitigate any hint of farce . . . Yu is a master of the slow reveal. It sometimes takes pages to understand where we are and why, but as the chatty protagonists joke and confess their deepest pains, details accrue and outlines fill in. And when we are finally oriented, the universe he has created feels eerily complete . . . Imaginary lands become possible worlds; cunning tricks grow into game theory; playing pretend morphs into explorations of false consciousness. Each story in Sorry Please Thank You is staggeringly smart, and none feel like anything but entertainment. Cultish fans of the NBC comedy “Community,’’ this book is for you.”
—The Boston Globe
“I don't know that there's a better story-bending talent at work than Yu since the rise of George Saunders . . . If you take a longer view you can see that Yu's success has many parents, from the oft-quoted Stein, the tone of Hemingway and Beckett, Virginia Woolf's fanciful short creations (as in, say, the story "Kew Gardens"), Calvino's game-faced fantasies and the low-key but powerful satire of Kurt Vonnegut . . . a tour-de-force.”
—Alan Cheuse, NPR.org
“Lovely and heartfelt . . . A brilliantly manic ride . . . Yu has an undeniable gift for describing, in clean, economical prose, the mechanics of things that don't exist or are impossible."
—The Wall Street Journal
“Stand back. The lead story in Sorry Please Thank You, this spritely new collection by L.A. writer Charles Yu, has the title ‘Standard Loneliness Package’ and it announces that a sly, nimble fantasist with a speculative edge is at work here. [An] adroit piece of work . . . Experiment plus emotion, we don’t often find these two elements together, but when it happens, as it does in most of these stories . . . it makes for terrific reading for the heart as well as the head.”
—Alan Cheuse for NPR’s All Things Considered
“Charles Yu won us over with his weird, melancholy novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and now he's back . . . [These] stories are psychological studies of neurotic nerds, struggling to stay alive as they fight liches and loneliness. They're beautiful, strange, and funny.”
“Yu’s bold, playful voice evokes a computer-era Donald Barthelme, but his stylistic journey into the vast universe that is the human mind is refreshingly distinctive.”
“Laugh-out-loud moments of strangeness artfully exist in a contemporary fictional structure . . . With this collection, steeped in originality, we get echoes of David Foster Wallace’s early collection, Girl with the Curious Hair. Like Wallace, Yu abandons the more self-serving, insular metafiction of the past 40 years for a fresher form. Using technology, pop culture, etc., he attempts to write fiction that can be best shared with readers, not just critics or scholars. Yu, in fact, marries science and literature . . . Characteristic of his work, Yu mixes the beauty of human emotion with the science fiction to invent highly original, highly entertaining scenes and stories. He poses questions of reality and existence. You first think you’re chuckling to yourself. Then, without warning, you‘ve got that ‘reaching final altitude’ feeling in your stomach—a sudden change . . . Yu examines what it means to exist now and, in his own way, what it will mean in the future. It’s almost as if these stories, through their science fiction and futuristic themes twinned with a humorous yet moving style, strive to reinvent what we know as metafiction . . . Yu follows Vonnegut and Wallace in this style of metafictional, literary pilgrimage”
“Grade A- . . . Pick it up and kiss your weekend good-bye . . . The best comparisons, though it feels a little hyperbolic to say, might be made with Vonnegut’s more pessimistic novels, books like Cat’s Cradle, Deadeye Dick, and Timequake. With Sorry Please Thank You, Yu has achieved something rare: an aggressively imagined work of fiction in which the concepts (mostly) serve the characters.”
“Charles Yu's outstanding collection Sorry Please Thank You collects short fiction by the author who gave us the terrific How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Yu's blend of literary fiction's style with sci-fi's wild ideas is beautifully realized here, especially in the moving gem "Standard Loneliness Package." One of the year's best collections in any genre.”
—The Austin American-Statesman
“Enchanting . . . Yu’s ability to assume widely diverging roles as a storyteller is dazzling . . . Those not bothered by diverse writing styles will find reading Yu to be an exciting adventure.”
“Like his debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu's new collection of stories mixes humor and clever conceits with a perfect deadpan delivery . . . Sharp, crisp insights that will have you chuckling and shaking your head.”
—Los Angeles Times
“The author behind three of the most unusual books of fiction published in the past five years . . . Untraditional but weirdly glorious narratives that, for all their experimental form, end up carrying as much or even more emotional force as your original, more conventional vessel would have.”
—Poets and Writers
“In his new collection, Charles Yu applies his trademark winking, pop-culture-infused, sci-fi mentality to a series of short stories . . . Clever and cutting.”
“Whether Yu’s work is dark, thought provoking, humorous, or all of the above, it’s always compulsively readable.”
—Owl and Bear
“Looking for the next great voice in fiction? Young author Charles Yu’s short stories beg comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, but he’s funnier than both.”
“Entertaining . . . Like a friend who stops by unexpectedly with a bunch of mind-bending tales to share . . . had me laughing . . . go order a copy.”
—Geekdad, Wired Magazine
“Impressive . . . Charts eclectic territory, from a zombie in a megamart to a new pharmaceutical drug that generates a sense of purpose, and explores retreats from reality and emotion . . . [Am] amusing send up American consumer culture.”
Riding on the critical success of his debut novel, How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Yu continues his predilection for "experimental" narrative in this collection of short stories. His ability to assume widely diverging roles as a storyteller is dazzling. For example, "Troubleshooting" reads like an instruction manual, "The Book of Categories" is presented in the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules format, "Hero Absorbs Major Damage" brings to mind a video game's battle plan, and "Designer Emotion 67" comes across like a keynote speaker's presentation. One story, "Note to Self," is even in the form of an online chat. The subjects embrace a wide variety of topics from genuine emotions in human relationships to make-believe, stereotyping, unfulfilled desires, and the true meaning of heroism and leadership, although this multifarious approach often is distracting. Sometimes he even resorts to Jack Kerouac-like "spontaneous prose" with rambling words and run-on sentences. "Open," written in a comparatively conventional style, is the most enchanting story in the collection and blends science fiction and magical realism in an exploration of the sincerity of our interactions with loved ones. VERDICT Those not bothered by diverse writing styles will find reading Yu to be an exciting adventure. [See Prepub Alert, 1/21/12.]—Victor Or, Surrey Libs. & Vancouver P.L., BC
Science fiction goes postmodern in this story collection from Yu (How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, 2010, etc.). Using various narrative strategies (though all but one of these 13 stories is written in the first person), Yu explores provisional identities (including those of a character named Charles Yu) in multiple universes, typically employing a conversational style that makes for easy reading even when the themes are troubling or the formalistic elements challenging. In one story, "Note to Self," a writer begins writing "Dear Alternate Self," before the response he receives suggests that his alternate self may simply be another dimension of himself, and then, later, that the person to whom he's actually writing is the reader: "We are correspondents corresponding in our corresponding universes. Is that what writing is? A collaboration between selves across the multiverse?" Where some stories just seem like gamesmanship, literary parlor tricks, one of the shorter and best ones, "Open," strikes an existential chord in its meditation on words and what they signify, in its epiphany that "It was like we were actors in a play with no audience." A couple stories offer heroic epics for the video game generation, while the longest, "Human For Beginners," begins as a chapter in a self-help book on dynamics within extended families, proceeds into an inquiry on the identity of Charles Yu, and culminates in unanswerable questions such as "What is possible? What is conceivable? Do all worlds have rules? Do dreams?" A collection of playful stories that often have a dark undercurrent. Far out, man.
Read an Excerpt
Standard Loneliness Package
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.
I feel pain for money. Other people’s pain. Physical, emotional, you name it.
Pain is an illusion, I know, and so is time, I know, I know. I know. The shift manager never stops reminding us. Doesn’t help, actually. Doesn’t help when you are on your third broken leg of the day.
I get to work three minutes late and already there are nine tickets in my inbox. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, open the first ticket of the morning:
I’m at a funeral.
Someone else’s grief. Like wearing a stranger’s coat, still warm with heat from another body.
I’m feeling a mixture of things.
Grief, mostly, but also I detect some guilt in there. There usually is.
I hear crying.
I am seeing crying faces. Pretty faces. Crying, pretty, white faces. Nice clothes.
Our services aren’t cheap. As the shift manager is always reminding us. Need I remind you? That is his favorite phrase these days. He is always walking up and down the aisle tilting his head into our cubicles and saying it. Need I remind you, he says, of where we are on the spectrum? In terms of low-end high-end? We are solidly toward the highish end. So the faces are usually pretty, the clothes are usually nice. The people are usually nice, too. Although I imagine it’s not such a big deal to be nice when you’re that rich and that pretty.
There’s a place in Hyderabad doing what we’re doing, but a little more toward the budget end of things. Precision Living Solutions, it’s called. And of course there are hundreds of emotional engineering firms here in Bangalore, springing up everywhere you look. The other day I read in the paper that a new call center opens once every three weeks. Workers follow the work, and the work is here. All of us ready to feel, to suffer. We’re in a growth industry.
Okay. The body is going into the ground now. The crying is getting more serious.
Here it comes.
I am feeling that feeling. The one that these people get a lot, near the end of a funeral service. These sad and pretty people. It’s a big feeling. Different operators have different ways to describe it. For me, it feels something like a huge boot. Huge, like it fills up the whole sky, the whole galaxy, all of space. Some kind of infinite foot. And it’s stepping on me. The infinite foot is stepping on my chest.
The funeral ends, and the foot is still on me, and it is hard to breathe. People are getting into black town cars. I also appear to have a town car. I get in. The foot, the foot. So heavy. Here we go, yes, this is familiar, the foot, yes, the foot. It doesn’t hurt, exactly. It’s not what I would call comfortable, but it’s not pain, either. More like pressure. Deepak, who used to be in the next cubicle, once told me that this feeling I call the infinite foot—to him it felt more like a knee—is actually the American experience of the Christian God.
“Are you sure it is the Christian God?” I asked him. “I always thought God was Jewish.”
“You’re an idiot,” he said. “It’s the same guy. Duh. The Judeo-Christian God.”
“Are you sure?” I said. He just shook his head at me. We’d had this conversation before. I figured he was probably right, but I didn’t want to admit it. Deepak was the smartest guy in our cube-cluster, as he would kindly remind me several times a day.
I endure a few more minutes of the foot, and then, right before the hour is up, right when the grief and guilt are almost too much and I wonder if I am going to have to hit the safety button, there it is, it’s usually there at the end of a funeral, no matter how awful, no matter how hard I am crying, no matter how much guilt my client has saved up for me to feel. You wouldn’t expect it—I didn’t—but anyone who has done this job for long enough knows what I’m talking about, and even though you know it’s coming, even though you are, in fact, waiting for it, when it comes, it is always still a little bit of a shock.
Death of a cousin is five hundred. Death of a sibling is twelve fifty. Parents are two thousand apiece, but depending on the situation people will pay all kinds of money, for all kinds of reasons, for bad reasons, for no reason at all.
The company started off in run-of-the-mill corporate services, basic stuff: ethical qualm transference, plausible deniability. The sort of things that generated good cash flow, cash flow that was fed right back into R&D, year after year, turning the little shop into a bit player, and then a not-so-bit player, and then, eventually, into a leader in a specialized market. In those early days, this place was known as Conscience Incorporated. The company had cornered the early market in guilt.
Then the technology improved. Some genius in Delhi had figured out a transfer protocol to standardize and packetize all different kinds of experiences. Overnight, everything changed. An industry was born. The business of bad feeling. For the right price, almost any part of life could be avoided.
Across the street from work is a lunch place I go to sometimes. Not much, really, a hot and crowded little room, a bunch of stools in front of a greasy counter. I come here mostly for the small television, up on a shelf, above the cash register. They have a satellite feed.
Today they have it switched to American television, and I am watching a commercial for our company’s services.
It shows a rich executive-looking type sitting and rubbing his temples, making the universal television face for I Am an Executive in a Highly Stressful Situation. There are wavy lines on either side of his temples to indicate that the Executive is really stressed! Then he places a call to his broker and in the next scene, the Executive is lying on a beach, drinking golden beer from a bottle and looking at the bluest ocean I have ever seen.
Next to me is a woman and her daughter. The girl, maybe four or five, is scooping rice and peas into her mouth a little at a time. She is watching the commercial in silence. When she sees the blue water, she turns to her mother and asks her, softly, what the blue liquid is. I am thinking about how sad it is that she has never seen water that color in real life until I realize that I am thirty-nine years old and hey, you know what? Neither have I.
And then the commercial ends with one of our slogans.
Don’t feel like having a bad day?
Let someone else have it for you.
That someone else they are talking about in the commercial is me. And the other six hundred terminal operators in Building D, Cubicle Block 4. Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let me have it for you.
It’s okay for me. It’s a good job. I didn’t do that well in school, after all. It was tougher for Deep. He did three semesters at technical college. He was always saying he deserved better. Better than this, anyway. I would nod and agree with him, but I never told him what I wanted to tell him, which was, hey, Deepak, when you say that you deserve better, even if I agree with you, you are kind of also implying that I don’t deserve better, which, maybe I don’t, maybe this is about where I belong in the grand scheme of things, in terms of high-end low-end for me as a person, but I wish you wouldn’t say it because whenever you do, it makes me feel a sharp bit of sadness and then, for the rest of the day, a kind of low-grade crumminess.
Whenever Deep and I used to go to lunch, he would try to explain to me how it works.
“Okay, so, the clients,” he would say, “they call in to their account reps and book the time.”
He liked to start sentences with okay, so. It was a habit he had picked up from the engineers. He thought it made him sound smarter, thought it made him sound like them, those code jockeys, standing by the coffee machine, talking faster than he could think, talking not so much in sentences as in data structures, dense clumps of logic with the occasional inside joke. He liked to stand near them, pretending to stir sugar into his coffee, listening in on them as if they were speaking a different language. A language of knowing something, a language of being an expert at something. A language of being something more than an hourly unit.
Okay, so, Deepak said, so this is how it works. The client, he books the time, and then at the appointed hour, a switch in the implant chip kicks on and starts transferring his consciousness over. Perceptions, sensory data, all of it. Then it goes first to an intermediate server for processing and then gets bundled with other jobs, and then a huge block of the stuff gets zapped over here, where it gets downloaded onto our servers and then dumped into our queue management system, which parcels out the individual jobs to all of us in the cubicle farm.
Okay, so, it’s all based on some kind of efficiency algorithm—our historical performance, our current emotional load. Sensors in our head assembly unit measure our stress levels, sweat composition, to see what we can handle. Okay? he would say, when he was done. Like a professor. He wanted so badly to be an expert at something.
I always appreciated Deepak trying to help me understand. But it’s just a job, I would say. I never really understood why Deep thought so much of those programmers, either. In the end, we’re all brains for hire. Mental space for rent, moments as a commodity. They have gotten it down to a science. How much a human being can take in a given twelve-hour shift. Grief, embarrassment, humiliation, all different, of course, so they calibrate our schedules, mix it up, the timing and the order, and the end result is you leave work every day right about at your exact breaking point. A lot of people smoke to take the edge off. I quit twelve years ago, so sometimes when I get home, I’m still shaking for a little bit. I sit on my couch and drink a beer and let it subside. Then I heat up some bread and lentils and read a newspaper or, if it’s too hot to stay inside, go down to the street and eat my dinner standing there, watching people walking down the block, wondering where they are headed, wondering if anyone is waiting for them to come home.
**The above is an excerpt from “Standard Loneliness Package,” the first story in the new collection SORRY PLEASE THANK YOU by Charles Yu.**
From the Hardcover edition.