Charles Yu’s last book, the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, garnered a lot of praise and announced Yu’s talent in a big way. While I didn’t find it as entirely sublime as many others, I appreciated that talent, and eagerly awaited Yu’s next work, hoping that he would take another crucial step forward.
Unfortunately, Yu hasn’t taken a step forward. But, if you want to put a silver lining on it, you might call his new story collection a step sideways (it’s certainly better than Daniel H. Wilson’s step back).
In Universe, Yu delivered a detailed, fascinating world, but a weak plot failed to fully exploit his skills. This time around, Yu crafts a series of bizarre premises and satisfying plotlines, but doesn’t put enough depth into his characters.
Almost all of the stories in Sorry Please Thank You fall into one of two categories. In the first, Yu takes a well-known sci-fi-ish touchstone and twists it—one of these touchstone stories (“Yeoman”) centers on a red-shirted yeoman from Star Trek who gets assigned to an away mission and knows it’s a death sentence.
The second kind of story, the more common kind, examines the corporate commodification of human experience, what one character calls “life itself as a product.” One of these stories (“Designer Emotion 67″) takes the form of a speech given by the eccentric CEO of a pharmaceutical company that specializes in chemically eliminating (or at least reducing) feelings of dread. Side effects, of course, abound.
The type of story Yu writes does not determine its outcome. Both of the stories I just mentioned are mediocre, but others in each category are quite good. A touchstone story (“Hero Absorbs Major Damage”) in which a Dungeons and Dragons hero struggles through a difficult quest has perhaps the best character of the collection. And the best story of the bunch might be a “life product” tale called “Standard Loneliness Package” in which a man’s job involves feeling pain (physical or emotional) for paying customers.
Instead of premise, character determines each of these stories’ success. When he creates well-rounded characters—like the damaged man who stars in “Standard Loneliness Package”—and plays them off their bizarre surroundings, he succeeds greatly. But when he writes riffs or parodies, starring cardboard characters or no characters at all, he falls down on the job.
But the underlying problem here is not a lack of originality, but a lack of depth. There’s a lot of material to be unearthed in a red-shirt premise, but Yu barely scratches the surface. His yeoman has no real personality—he wants nothing but to not die—and the story plays out with just a few unexciting developments. And so we’re left with not much more than the unoriginal premise.
The pharmaceutical CEO is wacky, dumb, and morally vacant—a George W. Bush-esque character that’s been entirely overused in fiction in the past decade. Here’s one of his lines:
But come on, people. Would you rather be confused and disoriented with a dry throat and the runs, or would you rather feel dread? I don’t even have to ask.
George Saunders writes similar characters in his stories, but with deep inner yearnings and layered complexity that Yu doesn’t match here. Saunders takes simple premises, like an odd man who works at a historical reenactment amusement park, and digs into his characters’ psychology until he touches their essential humanity.
The real shame is that Yu has the talent to do that same digging, but he uses it too rarely. These stories have plenty of great little moments and a few have real heft, but there are more cons than pros in the collection. I’m still on board for the next Yu book. Hopefully, it will feature deep characters, bizarre premises, and rollicking plotlines. Yu has written all three of those elements in abundance, but so far he rarely writes them all at the same time.