Sorry Please Thank You: Stories by Charles Yu
Reviewed by Matt Denault
12 November 2012
All of the stories in Charles Yu's second collection, Sorry Please Thank You, are clever. Their cleverness lies most directly in how Yu filters human dilemmas through the language and concepts of science, showing how our sciences reflect our understandings of those dilemmas. In this regard it is noteworthy that Yu's first literary interest was poetry. While Yu's prose in these stories is not especially poetic, his focus is on how words and their underlying ideas fit together as part of a cultural aesthetic, rather than on whether this fit plausibly coheres. These are stories given form and movement by their metaphors. The downside to this cleverness-by-metaphor is that it can suggest a path to perfection based on the self-conscious avoidance of choices, which if not balanced by insight can quickly become tiresome. Cleverness has gravity, a pull that always threatens to drag stories into the black hole of "merely clever" allegory.
"Note to Self" strikes me as the poster child for Yu's collection in this regard. On the surface, the story is a thought experiment based on the notion that if the multiple worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is true, then writing a note to yourself could be seen as a form of communication between your separate selves in those multiple worlds. Digging deeper, I would suggest it is a story about self-consciousness: how the duality implied by an awareness of self suggests the possibility of intra-self communication, and plays havoc with the idea of a unified "self." So the story's cleverness is in the aesthetically pleasing congruence between these conceptions of multiple selves, literal and figurative. It is a promising idea when outlined. Yet set down on paper it is thirteen pages of this:
You guys started without me!
Don't flip out.
Who are you, how did you get in here?
What do you mean? I'm you. I'm totally you guys.
No you're not. You're like, in a different font. (p. 148)
What the story's cleverness elides is insight into its existential terror, that "Aaaaaaghhh!!!" of recoil that results when the note-writer encounters a voice that does not accord with their self-image. The science fictional metaphor of multiple selves in multiple universes fits, but beyond noting that fit, Yu does not use it to illuminate. Why is the dissolution of the singular self so terrifying?
Yu's deployment of science to represent the self, and that resulting question, bring to mind Adam Roberts's review of Harmony by Project Itoh (2010) in this space. Roberts observed that the health sciences are the one area of technology that has become more transparent, rather than less, as they have developed. Roberts doesn't state it directly, so I will: the one area of science that in modern times has captured (or retained) people's desire to understand—that people still seem to feel can be understood—is the study of ourselves. Medicine, psychology: the sciences of self-definition. Even literature, as artifacts of the science of linguistics, has at times been subsumed under this sway, with movements like modernism that strove to accurately capture the self in words. But narratives that use science as a metaphor for the self and yet are conscious that scientific concepts are shaped by the self are inherently closed, circular. The danger in a story like "Note to Self" is that its conclusion becomes foregone, its conceptual cleverness the only movement—the only insight—sustaining the story. Sorry Please Thank You is full of these postmodern recountings of modernism's failure. Its tales can only end in existential crisis, in characters who must choose whether to go on despite that crisis, or in characters so lacking in self-awareness as to not feel the crisis.
"First Person Shooter" is one story that gives us that last sort of character. In this it's something of an outlier for Yu—most of his characters are caught up in existential angst—although it still illustrates both the strengths and limits of the collection. The tale is a competent farce that ably depicts the segment of the zombie zeitgeist characterized by the blending of borders between sex and death, comedy and horror; we're in the territory of works like Shaun of the Dead, and Amelia Beamer's The Loving Dead (2010). Here, Yu's zombie is a sort of mindless, pathetic personification of social conventions and expectations. It—she?—is found ransacking the cosmetics aisle of a big box Walmart clone out of the belief that lipstick will matter to the successful pursuit of its desires. This reflects back on the human clerks, who are just as caught up in their own desires. In just a few pages of story, Yu is thus making a statement on how the expectations of others can shape individual behavior, and simultaneously making us ask why our culture always depicts the behavior of mindless beings acting out base desires as violent cannibalism, to the exclusion of other base desires that may not be quite so separate as we like to think. The story's resolution is typical for Yu: it seems to push the boundary of sentiment, but its internal logic suggests that sentiment is a socially-expected trap that only losers like the narrator could fall victim to (and with the additional level of deniability that in the collection's other stories, the narrator is often named Charles Yu). Yu always manages to convey sympathy for his characters even while dubious about their prospects, and so offends no one. At the same time, I'm not sure it is a story that will excite anyone. The characters are mere sketches required to make the metaphor work, and the metaphor itself feels forced. "I don't think I would actually ever want to kiss her," our narrator-clerk says of his female coworker, "so much as I'd want to possess her. Consume her. Eat her, so that no one else could have her" (p. 36). There is an ungainly sense of exposure in how Yu writes these characters in order to make his metaphor work—because the characters never feel real, the metaphor, which I thought promising, becomes unconvincing.
"Hero Takes Major Damage" is a case where the metaphorical content is more convincing, and yet also more deceptive. I can appreciate the skill whereby Yu's godgame—in which a hero in a multiplayer fantasy video game works through an existential crisis—captures something of the blending that can occur between players of online role-playing games and the characters that they play. But Yu's story shies away from striving for insight into why and how that blending occurs, what it means for people and the society they live in. This creates the implication—repeated in several of these stories—that this new, seemingly incomprehensible thing actually works the same way as more familiar things. (When a new idea isn't ultimately the same as the old, then it truly is incomprehensible and, as in "Note to Self," unbearable.) It's a conservative, dismissive stance; by ignoring the potential for insight, Yu creates the illusion of an insight that is unexamined and, I think, false. One can imagine swaths of readers of "Major Damage" who are mystified by online games, being reassured that they're not missing anything because Yu is seen as a translator, who exists in this brave new science fictional universe and yet speaks the language of literature. But for anyone who has played an MMO, the reaction provoked is more likely to be that Yu is trying too hard to force something new into preexisting human behaviors, rather than accurately capturing the qualities of the new.
"Troubleshooting" is a case in point, a tedious pseudo-modern midlife crisis-in-writing. It's full of such insights as "a life without unfulfilled desire is not what you want" and "even when you do get [what you want], once you get it, you don't want it anymore" (p. 50), all treated as revelatory. This treatment is counteracted—I'd not say balanced—by how unimaginative our narrator in fact is. Just like the narrators of "Note to Self" and "First Person Shooter." More interestingly, the story introduces a recurring notion of Yu's that I struggled with: the idea that modern life is characterized by vagueness. In this he's in opposition to a line of thought that runs through such disparate writers as Italo Calvino and William Gibson, who posited—I think correctly—that modern, media-driven society would subject its citizens to the tyranny of specific images. This began with the development of mass media technologies, and as advertising and content now become ever more indistinguishable and targeted based on behaviors and experience, images become units of thought, of language. What this means in practice is that in "Troubleshooting," our narrator craves "a cheeseburger," whereas right now I crave a medium rare burger with blue cheese, Cajun seasoning, and sweet potato fries from Mr. Bartleys in Cambridge, MA, USA. Even our narrator's attempts at more specific cravings are rather vague—a human object of the narrator's fantasy is "that one who always wears that skirt, on 7 (in Marketing)" (p. 46). Again, this is clever: fantasies categorized by department, like a store; the personal identifier an off-the-shelf product rather than the character herself; a job in marketing. It's a superbly economical single line of prose. Yet in both its vagueness and its restraint it is unconvincing as a depiction of how people fantasize, and underdeveloped as anything more interesting. Yu seems to want to say something similar to Calvino, Gibson, et al, that even our fantasies are pre-packaged to such a degree that we cannot say what we really want. There are not words; there are not images. But the idea of vagueness works against this both logically and, crucially, aesthetically. Modernity may be characterized by ambiguity, even indecision, hesitation; but this is not the same as vagueness. At a time when one can spend hours lovingly customizing the ultimate speedboat with the mix of options that best represents our unique sense of self, to have the story's narrator vaguely fantasize about "a speedboat" (p. 48) feels like it is dodging the essence of the question of modern living.
A similar vagueness is one of two problems with "Adult Contemporary"; the other is that it is too similar to "Hero Takes Major Damage." Otherwise it strikes me as among better pieces in the collection, with the writing especially fine. There is less overt formal inventiveness here than some of the collection's other stories. Instead, there is a more nuanced shifting of narrative style as Yu breaks and then rebuilds the fourth wall in a sort of twenty-first century Twilight Zone piece that extends—only slightly—the concept of buying real estate into buying whole lifestyles and life narratives. But the story's vagueness saps much of its potential; it's hard to get a feel for what a life style truly is, when Yu offers so few details. And when Yu does deal in details, they often have a vagueness of their own. "American Entertainments, Inc." is the name of the company selling the lifestyles; in "First Person Shooter" the narrator worked at "WorldMart." The trend in the world may indeed be toward conglomeration, but Yu's book for example is published by Pantheon, a division of Random House—soon to be Penguin Random House—owned by the private company Bertlesmann. Conglomeration comes from efforts to maintain hierarchies of wealth, including the social display of those hierarchies as reflected in the interplay of specific established company names. There is thus a mismatch in "Adult Contemporary" between the careful architecture of the story overall, and details which stand out as simply the wrong images. "Book of Categories" (first published in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (2011)) features a similar mismatch, where overt formal inventiveness isn't matched by the flow of the story. "Categories" is told as an outline—a hierarchy of categories—of the titular tome, and reads like a Borges pastiche, but without the trust Borges had in his readers. That "Book of Categories" only gradually introduces its mechanics strikes me as needlessly artificial and hand-holding; and despite its apparent non-linear structure, the emotional arc is in fact quite linear. This may be meant as an argument, but isn't one as presented.
Given the pervasive sense of that many of the collection's stories are not fulfilling their conceptual promise, it is not surprising that several of the more memorable pieces are shorter works where the clever situations don't demand additional details or insight. "Yeomen" is a nasty little Star Trek-inspired episode that foregrounds the bathos that's kept carefully in the background of a narrative like John Scalzi's similar Redshirts (2012). It's one of the few stories here that uses its science fictional premise to generate lift, and that does not feel like its depiction of humanity has been sanitized. "Open" shares these qualities, and is also notable for its better use of detail in depicting a life style—"I watched a show about poisonous lizards and drank warm terrible whiskey out of Samantha's coffee mug. After finishing, I put the mug back in the cupboard without washing it" (pp. 131-2)—and for the conviction Yu has in deploying its fantastic element: words that become what they are, floating in the middle of a troubled couple's apartment. While not as risqué as its title might suggest, the story simply and elegantly encapsulates Yu's recurring concern with the lure of words as allusive, but also elusive in the possibilities they offer for uniquely personal and shared understandings.
However any implication that Yu is ill-suited to longer, more ambitious work would be a mischaracterization. Based on his novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), at least, the sheer size of a longer work may force him to investigate implications and take risks in a way that he doesn't show as much propensity to do in these shorter stories. "Standard Loneliness Package," the longest story in Sorry Please Thank You, bears this out this notion. "Package"'s premise is that when researchers in Southeast Asia develop the means for one person to temporarily live another's life, the same businesses that handle outsourced customer support for Western corporations today will come to handle outsourced periods of negative experience for the Western elite. These negative experiences may include everything from visits to the dentist to the funerals of loved ones, and also a child's recital, or going to church. In a crude sense it's a simple, metaphorical extension of what outsourcing does today. That is, in one light the story could be essentially the same if the characters were employees at an outsourced call center, forced to listen to customer complaints all day. But in another sense, in Yu's hands the idea of outsourcing life experience becomes a tool to examine the complexities of communication. It begins to do what "Note to Self" recoiled from, to get at that story's recoil. If we could live as other people, understand what words mean to them, what would that do to us in terms of our sense of selves and our ability to interact? What would shared understanding look like; what would it do to us? The use of outsourcing thus becomes one of Yu's more interesting and revelatory metaphors. And in some ways this is because it isn't quite as clever, it doesn't quite fit. Rather than be limited by that here, Yu focuses on the secondary effects of his concept, rather than on the base metaphor. This requires both Yu and the reader to do more work, and so touches on more dimensions—it is at once both the most satisfying character story in the collection and the most political. Inevitably, frustratingly, tantalizingly, many of those dimensions are merely touched on, and no more. Indeed, for all its stories about prefabricated lives, standard packages, for much of its length this collection feels like nothing so much as dictate of a Standard Author Package that called for a short story collection this year, even if it meant gathering up all of Yu's uncollected work regardless of fit or finish. But in a collection that includes too many story iterations that are never able to get beyond the clever metaphor that spawned them, the scope of awareness shown by "Standard Loneliness Package" is most welcome.