[At The Edge of the Universe, we review books that may not be classified SFF but that incorporate elements of speculative fiction. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
It is rare that I find myself blown away by a collection of short stories. Unless it is a “selected” anthology, where an editor can sort through a long career of writing and winnow out the mediocre and simply bad (even then there’ll most likely be at least a few I don’t care for), collections tend to evoke a “meh” response from me, mostly because I only liked half to two-thirds of the stories.
Such, unfortunately, is the case with Sorry Please Thank You: Stories, the new collection from Charles Yu. In terms of the thirteen individual stories, I had a range of reactions from “really good” to “solidly good” to “interesting but not particularly memorable” to “let’s just move on.” Taken as a whole, the collection felt a bit thin not just in terms of quality but quantity as well — coming in at just over 200 pages, and that includes a lot of white space — leaving me feeling more than just a little dissatisfied.
My favorite by far was the opening story, “Standard Loneliness Package.” It’s probably no coincidence that it’s the longest story, as I tend to prefer long stories that allow for character depth and development. The narrator is a worker at a company that promises, “Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you.” The company transfers bad feelings to workers like our narrator so the paying customer can avoid the sorrow of a funeral or the guilt over pulling the plug on a dying relative. Here is the narrator working:
I am at a funeral. I am feeling grief. Someone else’s grief… I am feeling that feeling. The one that these people get a lot, near the end of a funeral service. These sad and pretty people. It’s a big feeling. Different operators have different ways to describe it. For me, it feels like a huge boot… Some kind of infinite foot. And it’s stepping on me… on my chest.
The story has the feel of a Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick premise, or more recently a George Saunders, but at its heart it’s really a love story. For me, it had the strongest sense of character and emotion wedded to story and thus stood out from the others.
“Human for Beginners” is a little different stylistically, using a series of short passages (sometimes only using a single line on a page) to play around with/explore identity and character via metafiction:
I suppose the idea is this: I’m not real. I am some sort of hypothetical. An alternate version of an actual person living somewhere in the actual world. I have a Self. I’m his hypothetical. His guinea pig… It explains a lot. why I don’t have feelings of my own… Also this feeling I’ve had that I’m not real… I am not Charles Yu.
This was my second favorite story of the collection and in some ways I’d say the writing in it is even better than in the opening story, though I felt it went on a bit too long. “Open” was another solidly good story, if not quite as strong as the above two, beginning when a couple finds a large floating door in their apartment and choose to step through. It’s another look at identity, in this case the identities we put on, and it had a thought-provoking depth of character and plot to it despite being relatively short. Finally, “Troubleshooting” is another experiment in form — a numbered list presented as a sort of guide on how to handle a wish device. I liked both the premise and the different narrative structure, along with the highly effective choice of second person, but again felt it went on too long, though the closing line slams the story home with great power.
Once we’re past these four, I thought it was a pretty big drop-off. To discuss just a few of the others, “First Person Shooter” involves a worker at a thinly-veiled Wal-Mart who has to deal with a zombie in Housewares. It’s quite short and mildly entertaining, but that’s about it. “Hero Takes Major Damage” gives us the point-of-view of, well, a hero taking damage in a role-playing game. The strongest aspect is the questing group’s dynamics, especially when they pick up another character, but the story didn’t feel particularly original otherwise, or particularly surprising in how it played out.
“Note to Self” (a character engages in conversation with his alternate universe selves) and “Yeoman” (why are all those redshirts dying on the planetary beam-downs?) are at best playfully but only moderately entertaining, and at worst thin or unoriginal premises spun out too long by someone finding them just a little more funny than they are. I tended to fall into the second camp on these two. The rest either evoked similar responses or fared more poorly. None of them, I sense, are going to stick around in my head for very long.
A possibility I’m willing to entertain here, though, is that the collection, or at least a few of the stories, might stand better in other readers’ eyes, particularly those who don’t read a lot of science fiction. This review is appearing in our Edge column because, as our intro says, these books “may not be classified SFF but incorporate elements of speculative fiction.” I mentioned above that the first story reminded me somewhat of Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick and the same could be said of several other stories in Sorry Please Thank You. To reference more recent authors, I’d compare Yu to George Saunders or Steven Milhauser. It’s no coincidence that Bradbury has always given fits to those trying to pigeonhole him into a genre label and has often managed to escape the genre prison entirely, while Saunders and Milhauser have never been considered genre (read “science fiction”) authors.
So is Yu a science fiction author who employs techniques more commonly associated with “literary fiction,” such as metafiction, non-linear and non-narrative structures, etc.? Or is he a writer who simply employs science fiction settings and premises as starting points into literary fiction, just one more “technique”? I don’t know and to be honest, I’m not sure there’s any value or point to trying to figure it out (actually, I am pretty sure and the answer is no, there isn’t any value to it).
But in that context, if Yu’s audience is or expands beyond genre readers, his stories will almost surely seem much more fresh and original to those who haven’t spent years joking about the redshirts always getting killed on Star Trek or haven’t seen story upon story involving an RPG character presented as being really alive.
From my perspective as a long-time genre reader, however, the plots and characters were more familiar and thus less compelling. What I found myself responding most to were the literary elements — the playfulness with structure and language, the metafictional aspects, and so on. Unfortunately, those weren’t enough, though. I went in to the book expecting a mixed bag, as that is almost always what happens when I pick up a story collection, but even so, I felt disappointed by the end, with too few superior stories. As such, I can’t recommend it. But I appreciate the way Yu is stretching the genre, the way he is working so often out of the conventional storytelling mode, and despite being disappointed in this collection, I am looking forward to seeing what he does next.