New short story collection by Charles Yu
– by Ryan Ingram
In an apology-happy country like ours, the words “sorry”, “please” and “thank you” can be thrown around so fast and furious that they almost lose their meaning. But behind those words are the entirety of human interaction, observes the narrator in Charles Yu‘s final story from his new collection (not coincidentally titled) Sorry Please Thank You.
Even though the title suggests a bland and polite collection of pleasantness, Yu’s tales crackle with wild, genre-fueled ideas and clever experiments in form. The through-line of the collected stories seems to be injecting new life into the overlooked and taken-for-granted by filling them with clever ideas, and turning them into personal explorations.
The first and strongest story in the collection is “Standard Loneliness Package”, with a heartbreaking sci-fi premise about a minimum wage-earning cubicle jockey who’s fed clients’ unwanted human emotions, from funeral grief to breakup pity.
Although he seems to be labeled as a literary sci-fi author, Charles Yu also plays with meta-fiction, magic realism and even the zombie apocalypse. But no matter how weird and imaginative the idea, the stories work because they’re built with emotion.
Featured in Sorry Please Thank You are alternate-realities, lab-designed emotions and alternate realities. But it’s the characters at the core of each of the stories that makes them work – whether it’s a “red shirt” yeoman facing certain death on an Enterprise-like ship, to a hulking warrior hero who realizes his god may be nothing more than a kid playing video games. In one story the word “open” literally appears floating in the middle of a couples’ apartment, signaling a surreal end to their relationship.
Even the words “sorry”, “please” and “thank you” are used to divide up each section, categorizing each story, and opening up thematic alternate-worlds for each phrase.
Yu experiments with form in interesting ways with mostly successful results. One story describes the contents of a mystical book and gets a little too precious to earn a moving conclusion. Another follows a clever conversation between alternate-selves that ends in a surprisingly effective meditative mindfuck.
But each story reads effortlessly, so even the more experimental, less-meaty tales are over before you get impatient and flip through to the next one.
With his 2010 breakout novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe – about a character also named Charles Yu who explores alternate realities – Yu has been praised by the likes of io9 as a promising new literary genre writer. While I haven’t read the novel (yet), Sorry Please Thank You is more than enough evidence that he’s a writer with ideas and stories worth exploring.