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Third Class Superhero

Third Class Superhero

3.6 6
by Charles Yu

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Charles Yu experiments with form and genre to explore the stories we tell ourselves while navigating contemporary life. In "Third Class Superhero," a would- be good guy must come to terms with the darkness in his heart. A couple living in the Luxury Car Commercial subdivision in "401(k)" are disappointed when their exotic vacation turns into a Life Insurance/Asset


Charles Yu experiments with form and genre to explore the stories we tell ourselves while navigating contemporary life. In "Third Class Superhero," a would- be good guy must come to terms with the darkness in his heart. A couple living in the Luxury Car Commercial subdivision in "401(k)" are disappointed when their exotic vacation turns into a Life Insurance/Asset Management pitch. The author struggles to write the definitive biography of his mother in "Autobiographical Raw Material Unsuitable for the Mining of Fiction." In these and other stories, Yu’s characters run up against the conventions and parameters of their artificial story lines while tackling the terrifying aspects of existence: mothers, jobs, spouses, the need to express feelings.  Heartbreaking, hilarious, smart, and surprising, Third Class Superhero marks the arrival of an impressive new talent.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Issues of identity and insecurity simmer throughout Yu's debut collection, an imaginative excursion into the burrow Kafka built.. In "My Last Days as Me," the unnamed star of the hit TV show Me and My Mother chafes at the recasting of his onscreen mother and eradicates the line between actor and character. The unnamed man in "Man of Quiet Desperation Goes on Short Vacation" evaluates his existential condition as frequently as a time-obsessed man checks his watch. And in the title story, "Moisture Man" strives to improve his position in the superhero hierarchy, which means constant self-appraisal and comparison to his more successful counterparts ("fireball shooters. A few are ice makers. Half a dozen telepath/empaths"). Yu flirts with formal experimentation-"Problems for Self-Study" unfolds as a complicated multiple choice test, for example-but tempers his fantastical constructions with level prose. (The first two paragraphs of "The Man Who Became Himself" are "He was turning into something unspeakable" and "At the office, people avoided the issue.") There is abundant humor, though, and Yu allows the reader to feel pathos without patronization; a neat trick, in a compulsively readable collection. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Audacious . . . Smart, engaging and often deadpan funny."
Library Journal
This unusual debut collection of 11 stories uses an inventive style to probe fundamental questions about modern life from a variety of distinct perspectives. In the title story, a halfhearted superhero called Moisture Man betrays his fellow superheroes to the bad guys in exchange for the power of flying but soon discovers that there is mixture of good and evil in everyone-a common thread throughout these stories. In "401(K)," a man and his wife lead shallow lives as active members of a money-making culture, "buying things we don't want to feel closer to the things we know we can't get." In "The Man Who Became Himself," a character named David observes himself as if he were having an out-of-body experience, scraping away his pretentious outside shell to discover a man isolated and alone. The outstanding "Man of Quiet Desperation Goes on Short Vacation" features a protagonist forever trapped in uneventful static moments. These stories read like entries in a private journal, with clever metaphors and philosophical introspection related through absurd situations that capture the vagueness in our lives. Recommended for all collections.-David A. Beron , Plymouth State Univ., NH Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A playful experimentalist probes the limits of fiction in this debut collection. The post-collegiate braininess of many of Yu's stories is like the music of the Talking Heads, making the familiar seem off-kilter. Among his mathematically audacious fictional strategies, "Problems for Self-Study" casts itself as a series of algebraic equations that attempt to account for the inevitable arc of a marriage, and "32.05864991%" introduces the field of "emotional statistics" and the precision of probability indicated by the word "maybe." There's a reversal of Kafka's Metamorphosis in "Realism," a story suggesting that what's commonly accepted as literary realism is unrealistic convention. "The Man Who Became Himself" also takes a Kafkaesque turn in its comic examination of the essence of identity, when a man starts thinking of himself as "he" rather than "I," as if he is somehow inhabiting the body of another. The closing "Autobiographical Raw Material Unsuitable for the Mining of Fiction" may or may not be autobiographical, may or may not be fiction, and its narrator, "I," who reads and writes stories, may or may not be the author. In one of the most metaphorically compelling stories here, "Florence" takes the form of science fiction, set a million years from now, when centuries pass in the blink of an eye, and each human exists isolated on his own planet, communicating across the void. The title story might well be the weakest, though the cover it inspires could appeal to the expanding readership for graphic novels, as Yu details the plight of "Moisture Man," whose powers fail to make the superhero cut. Within these 11 stories, Yu uses language to suggest what language cannot express, ashe deals with themes such as the nature of distance, the essence of time and the illusion of self for readers whose attention span has been conditioned more by video games than classic novels. Smart, engaging and often deadpan funny.
Entertainment Weekly

"Rich with humor, invention, and humanity . . . Yu emerges as a first-class talent. A."
Los Angeles magazine

"Reminds one of Kafka, if Kafka had had a geekish passion for science fiction and TV . . . hilarious."

"Ambitious . . . funny and inventive."
From the Publisher


"'Class Three Superhero' transcends what might have been a merely clever premise to speak to us about ambition, envy and the moral dilemmas that our own worst natures force on us. I admire it very much."--Jean Thompson, National Book Award Finalist

The Times (UK) - Frank Egerton

"[Yu] show[s] that the short story is not only alive but being reinvigorated in excitingly diverse ways."

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt

( Third Class Superhero
Got the letter today and guess what: still not a superhero.
Dear Applicant, not a good sign, the number of qualified candidates this year blah blah far exceeded the number of available blah.
I scan the list of people who did make it. A lot of them graduated with me. It’s the usual assortment of the strong and beautiful. About half are fireball shooters. A few are ice makers. Half a dozen telepath/ empaths. A couple of brutes, a shape-shifter, a few big brains.
One thing they all have in common is that every single one of them can fly.
I can’t fly. I can’t do much. On the other hand, it’s not like I’m asking for a lot. I don’t need to be an all-star. I just want a suit and a cape, steady work, a paycheck that covers groceries. Decent health insurance. But I’ll have to wait another year.
At least I have my good-guy card. For now.
Every morning, when I open my eyes, I think the same four thoughts:
1) I am not a superhero.
2) I have to go to work.
3) If I didn’t have to work, I could be a superhero.
4) If I were a superhero, I wouldn’t have to work.
I was temping for a while to keep my afternoons free in case I got calls for tryouts, but those dried up and I needed to get a regular job for dental and vision. Now I’m a records clerk for a big midtown law firm. I like it because I don’t have to talk to anyone or explain myself if I’m missing for a few hours. I just say I was lost in the stacks. People at work don’t know I’m moonlighting. They think I’m an actor.
Part of the problem is my name. Moisture Man. Doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of the wicked.
For a few months last year, I tried to get people to call me Atmosphero. A few people did it to be nice, but it didn’t stick—I think the problem was too many syllables. Shortening it to Atmos doesn’t work either, because there’s a physicist up in Seattle named Atomos who solves science crimes with a group that calls itself The Nucleus. The registrar says if I use too similar a name I could be sued for infringement. She suggested the name ’Sphero, but that’s just plain wrong. Makes me sound like a force-field guy, and, anyway, -o endings are usually for villains.
So I’m stuck with Moisture Man.
A couple of years ago I listed myself in the phone book, which was a mistake, because you can imagine the crank calls I get.
My power, if you can call it that, and I don’t think you can, is that I am able to take about two gallons of water from the moisture in the air and shoot it in a stream or a gentle mist. Or a ball. Which is useful for water-balloon fights, but not all that helpful when trying to stop Carnage and Mayhem from robbing a bank.
For years I was on a self-improvement kick. I read all the books and listened to tapes. I ordered everything there was to order by mail. Studied physics, how the big brains can change gravitational constants. I read history, I learned theory, the balance of good and evil, stuff like that. Still doesn’t change the fact that I’m minor. Not even minor. A sideshow. A human water fountain.
I did some time in therapy. Turns out, I have a self-destructive impulse and slight megalomania. I didn’t need to pay for sixty hours of analysis to find that out. I still go to the gym, but I’m getting old and I can only do so much. I read every word of Heroics for Dummies. $24.99. Written by someone with an MBA. The quick bullet-point tip sheet at the back of the book tells me to “focus on my strengths” and “rely on others when it comes to my weaknesses.” That’s helpful.
Evenings, I get home, open the junk mail, drink a warm beer. My refrigerator is unplugged and will probably stay that way forever. If I get hungry, there’s a twenty-four-hour taco stand across the street. Two for a dollar and free jalapeños if you eat there. I usually get four tacos and load up on salsa.
After dinner, around ten or eleven, I go upstairs to sit with Henry. He lives in the one-room efficiency above me. He’s got a futon with a thin blanket, which I set up for him years ago. I don’t think he’s ever changed it from the couch position. He’s got one sink and a hot plate and a toilet room the size of a phone booth. Henry usually watches TV while I read the trades.
Henry is eighty-something but looks closer to a hundred and forty. His skin smells like Naugahyde and his hair pops up from his head in clumps of cotton. Up until last year, he was inhaling two packs of Reds a day, but it got too expensive. In his life Henry has poured so much booze down his throat that if he never has another drink again he will be drunk the day he dies. He’s been smoked, cured, pickled, and I bet he’ll outlive me by twenty years.
The way we met was this: When I moved in nine years ago, I used to hear loud banging and thumping noises from upstairs about once a week. I ignored it for a while, but one night it went on longer than usual. I went up there and knocked a few times, louder and louder. No one answered. It got quiet. I put on my costume and stood outside Henry’s door for a minute.
I heard a whimper. I broke the door down—I could do that kind of thing back then. Turns out it was Henry’s son, Harold, making all that noise. He had been beating the crap out of his father every Sunday night for months, an hour or ninety minutes, until he got tired. Henry had been kicked out of the house by Harold’s mother thirty-five years earlier for the drinking, but instead of cleaning up his act, Henry just forgot about them and moved into this dump with his fifteen-inch television and ashtray and mini-fridge full of beer. Then Harold’s mother got sick and almost died trying not to go to the doctor. Her sister paid the hospital bills and practically raised Harold, and Harold turned out all right, went to college and got married and even had a son of his own, but he was still angry at Henry.
 Thing is, I believe Henry when he says he never laid a hand on anyone. I believe him, if only because Henry is the laziest person I’ve ever met. He only wanted to destroy himself. Did his wife deserve better? Did Harold? Yes. Yes. Henry’s not a good guy. He’s getting the life he deserves and most days he seems okay with that. I forget that the majority of people don’t want special powers, like Henry, who can just barely handle being normal. I don’t like the guy, but I guess I have a soft spot for him because he’s the only person I’ve ever actually protected. Even though I didn’t really do anything. It was just the costume.
Since then, we’ve become friends. Sort of. I look in on him a little. Just a little. Not as much as I should. I’ll regret it someday soon. It’s true. The only kinds of people in this metropolis are failed superheroes and the lonely old men who live upstairs from them.
I wasn’t always this way. Nine years ago, I was Young and Promising. I lived my life like I was waiting for some big event to happen. Not just a big event, but a Major Life Development. I had a lot of Capitalized Thoughts back then. I did some things I shouldn’t have. I lived with about a six-month time horizon. I didn’t care about the people around me. I was going places, stepping on stones, burning bridges. I had a day job, but I looked around and said to myself out loud: You people are all lifers but I’m just passing through. On my way to Big Things.
Then that first letter came and I wasn’t on the list. A temporary setback. Until the next year, when I wasn’t on the list again. Burnham was. Dolan was. So was Feeney. Just a bump in the road, though.
Until the next year.
And then the next.
And then four more years. I got used to it.
This year, though, I thought something was different. This year, I could feel it. I even told a couple of people. I even admitted to myself that I was nervous. This year, things would turn around.
This year hurt.
Copyright © 2006 by Charles Yu
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Meet the Author

Charles Yu is the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which was named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine. He received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award for his story collection Third Class Superhero, and was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award. His work has been published in The New York Times, Playboy, and Slate, among other periodicals.

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Third Class Superhero 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Alphacorvus More than 1 year ago
A short collection (93 pages) of Charles Yu's sardonic and sad short stories that provide commentary on our current state of affairs. Yu knows how to turn a failed superhero into a sympathetic minor villain and still keep our sympathy and humanity intact. Not as strong as <i> How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe </i> and a bit short but still the quality is there and if you need a just a little Yu the size is perfect.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Walks to ware house* *builds s 3* * walksback*
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pets the wolf