The Short Version: Charles Yu’s new collection of stories features several stories with his trademark metafictional voice and sense of sad longing that comes wrapped up in all the new technology around us. A corporation that lets you outsource your emotions, the inner life of an MMORPG character, an excerpt from a guide for other species who are attempting to assimilate with humanity – it’s all perfectly strange and perfectly possible.
The Review: I was coolly excited about Charles Yu’s novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, although I still feel as though the ideas somewhat outstripped the execution. But the lasting impression of that book was a unique voice, not only for the decision to have the main character be a version of Charles Yu but for the melancholy that suffused the novel. That same melancholy is on display in these stories, even the ones that could safely be described as happy or positive – it isn’t a sadness, necessarily (although there’s plenty of that) but rather more… of a shading. I’m struggling to find the proper analogy but let’s try this somewhat Yu-ian one: it is, for Yu’s stories, the equivalent of the color of the sky here on Earth being blue. It’s a given, a background fact that you only notice when you notice.
It’s a beautiful sort of melancholy, though. It isn’t ever overwhelming or oppressive, even in a story as terribly bleak as the title story (lasting just a few pages and provoking a single sob from me on the train when I read it) – there’s something, like I said, beautiful about it. Yu has captured the dichotomy that exists in the present day of embracing our rapidly expanding technological horizons and feeling a little sad about what it’s doing to us as human beings, as people. I feel like Yu and Douglas Rushkoff would have lots to talk about; these stories aren’t present shock, not exactly, but they’re also very much related. Yu also connects to that Shteyngartian Super Sad… sensibility too – although the latter is more humorous than the former.
There is a bit of a disconnect regarding the way this collection is put together, though. The stories are separated into four sections – “sorry”, “please”, “thank you”, and “all of the above” – but the stories themselves don’t exactly seem to fit into those categories in any particular way. I’m not sure if it was a gimmick or if there was something on a subconscious level I was supposed to be seeing… but either way, it was a little odd, especially considering the fact that some of these stories could easily have fit into other categories than the ones they were placed into.
It was nice, too, to see Yu experimenting (at least a little bit) with other modes and genres. The aforementioned title story as well as the zombie one were decidedly not sci-fi – and while plenty of the other stories were, it was important to see that Yu could write in other modes as well. I think he could write a really funny zombie comedy, actually. And the MMORPG story was layered in a delightful way, bringing in yes the sci-fi but also some fantasy, some complex romance, and some serious philosophical/existential questions without it being (as in his novel) heavy sci-fi.
Rating: 4 out of 5. This is a really great entry point, I think, for Yu’s work. Reading How to Live… was a terrific intro and it established his (apparently) dominant themes on a large canvas – but it was complex and hard to grapple with at times, and I’m a sci-fi nerd. This book provides the reader with an opportunity to taste Yu’s writing, to experience that cloudy melancholy, and tease the complex metafictional pyrotechnics that are on greater display in the novel. It’s also a quick read – one perfectly suited to a rainy solitary Sunday.