Sorry Please Thank You
- Charles Yu
- Pantheon Books
- 222 pp.
- Reviewed by Phil Harvey
- August 2, 2012
These abstract and futuristic stories by a celebrated young writer are infused with loss, loneliness and reveries about existence.
Reviewed by Phil Harvey
If I tell you that the title of Charles Yu’s new collection of stories, Sorry Please Thank You, is more appropriately rendered
you have a clue to the nature of this work. Form matters. The prose is abstract, futuristic. Sometimes there are only a few words on a page.
Full disclosure: I am not a fan of abstract fiction. Still, in some of these entries (many are not stories at all) I found things to admire.
“Hero Absorbs Major Damage,” for example, is (I think) a video game come to life, and it has a hero and a plot. Yes, there are unconnected observations, like “Rostejn fell under the sphere of influence of a powerful mage in the Abjuration school and almost got everyone turned into black pudding.” But that kind of esoteric whimsy seems to fit this tale, which includes endless battles (#256 is the “last battle”) and a leader whose consciousness we share and who has real (or seemingly real) feelings about his band of warriors. They deal cheerfully with orcs, lichs, rocs, shambling mounds and the loss of their own limbs. In the end, the hero becomes a bit like one of sociologist Charles Murray’s prototypes by finding more value in coping with life’s troubles than in seeking happiness in a boring paradise.
In “Standard Loneliness Package,” there are islands of poignancy. This story tells of workers at computer screens who, for a fee, assume into their own psyches the emotionally unpleasant — and sometimes horrible — experiences of their customers. “Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let us have it for you.” It’s an interesting premise, and although one may argue that most people would not wish to farm out the grief they undergo at funerals, Yu gets some serious depth into other awfuls that his professional bad-day man must undergo:
The low-light of the day is when I get to be a woman. I get to tell my husband that I have been sleeping with my trainer for the last year. The first year of our marriage. I get to see his face, watch him try to keep it together. Of all the types of tickets, this is the worst. Heartbreak. When I first started at this job, I expected the hardest would be physical pain. But it’s not. This is the hardest. To be inside here, looking at this man’s face, at the lowest moment of his life, watching him try to keep it together. To be inside here, feeling what this woman is feeling having done this to him. And then the world blinks twice and my field of vision goes blue and I’m a guy sitting in front of a computer screen and the sandwich cart is in front of my cubicle.
So I have lunch.
The more abstract pieces have their moments too. “Human for Beginners” is a pleasant reverie about existence: What does it mean to be alive? What questions do we ask the world without expecting an answer? Much of this seems pointlessly unfocused, but once in a while Yu nails a concept perfectly: “My whole life has been all before, before, before, leading up to. And then, just like that, it feels like after. After-something. Between before and after, there was supposed to be something big, right?” But other questions fall flat. (“How well does anyone know anyone?”)
“Yeoman” is a tongue-in-cheek space romp. No one in this interplanetary fantasy really cares much about anything, and everything turns out fine. The spaceship captain is reported “Dead by Space-Thingy,” but he’s really on another planet having sex with goo. Fun and utterly forgettable.
Other entries are too abstract to obtain much traction. Some feel self-indulgent.
In “Troubleshooting” the author asks himself questions whose answers are not enlightening. “Is everything we [humans] ever say just another way to express: I will lose this, I will lose all of this. I will lose you?” I don’t think so. “Note to Self” goes to self-indulgent extremes: “Don’t call me alternate Self. Just Self. You call me Self, I call you Self.” Good luck with that.
A sense of loneliness and loss runs through several of these pieces. Yu sometimes speaks of himself in the third person. “She is gone. What had Charles Yu done?” And, much later: “She is gone.”
“What am I waiting for?” he asks, speaking for himself. “Who am I waiting to see?” And, finally, “How does a perfectly average-looking guy like me end up so unfathomably lonely by the age of forty-one?”
Would that these moments were not buried so deep in layers of impenetrable (though always erudite) prose.
Phil Harvey’s stories have appeared in 15 magazines. His new novel, Show Time, was released in May.