July 25, 2012

Review: Sorry Please Thank You: Stories

Book Cover By Charles Yu
Available now from Pantheon Books (Random House)
Review copy

Charles Yu has been making a big splash.  His short story collection THIRD CLASS SUPERHERO won him the 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation.  Then he received the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award.  Last year his debut novel HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE came out to near universal acclaim including being named a New York Times notable book and 2011 Best Book of the Year by such publications as Time Magazine and io9.  He comfortably straddles science fiction and literary fiction.  Now he returns to short stories with a collection containing works that have previously appeared in publications as varied as The Oxford-American, Playboy, and THE THACKERY T. LAMBSHEAD CABINET OF CURIOSITIES.

SORRY PLEASE THANK YOU is divided into four sections: Sorry, Please, Thank You, and All of the Above.  It's a clever idea, but the division doesn't feel organic.  Many of the stories in different sections are preoccupied with the same themes.  Yu continually returns to pondering the authenticity of relationships and satisfaction or dissatisfaction with one's self.

 But here's the really important thing about Yu: he's fiercely funny.  Sometimes he goes overboard with the meta or postmodern formatting.  It works when there's really something to think about when you untangle what he's saying.  Other times it's just flash for no good reason.  Maybe I just really didn't like "Human for Beginners."  It starts promising, then gets pleasantly weird, then fast becomes tedious.

If you can't tell by my last statement, not every story in SORRY PLEASE THANK YOU is a winner.  But the high points shine brightly and come fairly frequently.  The collection opens with the one-two punch of "Standard Loneliness Package" and "First Person Shooter."  "Standard Loneliness Package" imagines a future where the rich pay other people to feel their pain, guilt, and other less pleasant emotions.  On the other hand, people in dire straights mortgage their lives and other people rent it for escape.  The protagonist attempts to romance coworker Kirthi, a heartbreak specialist.  In this story, Yu pulls off the darker side of human emotion beautifully.  "First Person Shooter" also deals with a romance between coworkers.  But this time they work in a WalMart expy and are trying to deal with a zombie roaming the store.

The Please section is the longest and weakest.  But "Hero Absorbs Major Damage" and "Open" are both must reads.  "Hero Absorbs Major Damage" explore the typical RPG through the point of view of an avatar who tries to lead his team as best he can and sometimes worships the fallible young deity Fred.  "Open" begins perfectly.  It shows off Yu's command of language and his playful universes.  Plus, it ends with quite the hook.
"We need to talk about that," I said.
"Why?  Why do we always have to talk everything to death?"
"The word 'door' is floating in the middle of our apartment.  You don't think maybe this is something we need to discuss?"
- p. 131, ARC
What follows is an intriguing story about identity and intimacy.

Thank You contains "Yeoman" as well as the best story in the collection "Designer Emotion 67."  "Yeoman" is for fans of John Scalzi's REDSHIRTS: A Novel with Three Codas and Galaxy Quest.  When a man receives a promotion to crew's yeoman, he realize it means he's going to die.  That's not an option, considering he has a baby on the way.  It's a hilarious send up of science fiction tropes and the yeoman's wife is priceless.  "Designer Emotion 67" is a transcript of PharmaLife, Inc.'s annual report to shareholders in 2050.  "The Depression-industrial complex has been built (175)" and now they're exploring the possibilities in curing Dread.  The CEO is cocky and brash and should probably have an intern edit his speech, but he does know what the shareholders are really after.  Money.  It's crazy yet plausible and funny in all the worst ways.

SORRY PLEASE THANK YOU ends on a dark note with eponymous story "Sorry Please Thank You."  A suicide note on a bar napkin, it hovers somewhere between Yu's best and worst.  It has his long, propulsive paragraphs were the narrator babbles, searching to make sense of something.  It's preoccupied with human interaction.  There's the strange bitterness about love.  It may not be a highlight of the anthology, but it's a fitting end.

Fans of the short story and of Charles Yu should pick up a copy of SORRY PLEASE THANK YOU.  (Although if you have no stomach for postmodernism, you might stay away.)  Yu's work in this collection will further his standing with both the literary and sci-fi crowds.  Six standouts in a collection of thirteen stories isn't bad at all.


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