Review: Sorry Please Thank You, Stories by Charles Yu

>>Published: July 2012

>>Finally got around to it: September 2012

I am in a hospice.

I have been here before. A regular client.

I am holding a pen.

I have just written something on a notepad in front of me.

My husband is gone.

He died years ago.

Today is the tenth anniversary of his death.

I have Alzheimer’s, I think.

A memory of my husband surfaces, like a white-hot August afternoon, resurfacing in the cool water of November.

I tear off the sheet of paper.

I read it to myself.

It is a suicide note.

I raise a glass to my mouth, swallow a pill. Catch a glance of my note to the world.

The fail-safe kicks on, the system overrides. I close the ticket. I’m out just in time, but as I leave this dying mind, I feel the consciousness losing its structure. Not closing down. Opening. As it dies, I feel it opening up, like a box whose walls fall away, or a maybe a flowering plant, turning towards the sun.

***

Charles Yu’s debut novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe was one of my top five books for 2010. A meta-science fiction narrative that wilfully, gleefully wrapped itself up in all manner of time travel paradoxes, it was at once brilliantly conceived, laugh-out-loud funny, and vicious in its density of ideas. Sorry Please Thank You, his second collection of short stories and his first book since How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, is a welcome, light-hearted follow-up that continues to showcase Yu’s caustic wit and intellect in new and interesting ways.

Sorry Please Thank You is a collection of thirteen stories split into four smaller subsections: Sorry, Please, Thank You, and All of the Above. Sorry, the first section, is about individuals seeking to shirk their feelings and responsibilities—deliberately working to, and in some cases paying great sums of money to void their emotions and sidestep failure. In the collection’s first story, “Standard Loneliness Package,” an awkward call centre worker stationed in Bangalore absorbs the feelings of others—taking on an individual’s fear as they confront their boss, or their grief at the funeral of a loved one. Naturally, depression, anxiety, and all manner of mental and psychological issues ripple through a workplace of insular avatars all designed to take an emotional beating every minute of their lives. “First Person Shooter” is a loose Walmart shopper-parody, as two customer service reps reflect on their own stagnation while watching as a self-aware zombie shuffles through the store. “Troubleshooting” is a smattering of Dr. Phil-style romantic advice for the IT crowd, expounding on the dangers of living through technology—more than that, expecting technology to do your living for you.

The second section in the collection, Please, is more personal than the first. “Hero Absorbs Major Damage” is a contemporary, Diablo-esque spin on the old ’90s cartoon Reboot, using RPG stats and tracking to highlight the successes and failures of a fractured in-game family, and in the end, both confronting and removing “God”—the player—from the equation, embracing one’s choices as their own. “Human for Beginners” offers a segment of an alien species handbook—a guide for understanding the strangeness of extended family connections (and as someone whose extended family is very alien and unknown to him, this entry was particularly insightful). “Inventory” is broken paragraph story starring the author, describing what makes a man into a man—or more appropriately, the man he thinks he should be. This story is very much what its title implies: an inventory, of accountability, of blame, and of reason—reasons why the unnamed “she” of the story has at one point abandoned the author, or why he abandoned her. “Open” is one of the more on-the-nose stories in the collection, using the concept of an apartment and the lives inside as a diorama, with realities flipped; the couple, broken and spiteful towards one another within the diorama apartment, live their exterior lives “in reality” as performance artists playing to a crowd of their best friends who want only the best for them and do not see the loss of love that exists right in front of them. The final story of the Please section, “Note to Self,” is about as meta an exercise as anything from How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. It presents—and answers—the age-old question of what one might say to oneself if presented with your double, or in this case, doubles spread across any number of universes. As it turns out, not a whole hell of a lot beyond basic mind games.

Thank You is a more emotionally removed set of stories focussed on adding filters over life, to lessen the impact of some of its more challenging and horrific aspects, and to continue to exist in safe, albeit muted, ways. It is the weakest section of this book, as it repeats, in less interesting ways, some of the themes presented in the first two segments. “Yeoman” is a classic behind-the-camera take on the self-aware Starfleet “redshirt”—the crewman who will, undoubtedly, die on some eventual away mission, so that the more important members of the ships crew will survive another week of potboiler narratives. Though the message of valuing life for the sake of one’s family if not one’s own existence is strong, it is one of the more obviously plotted tales in the collection, in the end offering more surface texture than anything particularly deep or introspective. “Designer Emotion 67” presents an unintelligent CEO of a pharmaceutical company addressing a future of emotional band-aids designed to eliminate dread. This story works as an amusing companion piece to the first story in the collection, but treads too much of the same water to be effective on its own, feeling more like a straight-up comedy piece than any other story in the book. “The Book of Categories” plays with an interesting concept that I would love to see developed into something larger: an open-sourced bible of sorts—a symbolic wiki defining our world, or possibly an individual’s world, its pages and meanings forever in a state of flux as experiences change the course of lives in large and small ways. “Adult Contemporary” is the closest approximation to a literary The Truman Show I’ve come across. Again, it feels as if this story borrows and expands upon ideas presented in the collection’s first story, “Standard Loneliness Package,” through the purchasing of a life manufactured for pleasure, to remove oneself from their own less-than-ideal existence; however, “Adult Contemporary” is a bit more grounded in the here and now, using television and people’s willingness to live vicariously through the lives of their heroes and celebrities to indict those who seek escapism to the detriment of their own lives and the lives of those near and dear to them.

The final segment, All of the Above, consists only of the title story, “Sorry Please Thank You,” and is less a wholly realized tale in and of itself and more a final nail in the coffin of personality flaws spread bare by the previous twelve stories. It feels almost like an umbrella piece under which to collect all others. Interesting, but certainly the weakest link in an otherwise engaging collection.

Even in the collection’s “lesser” entries, Yu’s writing is always sharp, and very carefully crafted. He frequently employs literary paradoxes, playing words and meanings off one another in rhythmic ways that, more often than not, add a great deal of comedy to even the more emotionally dour stories. The second segment, Please is the strongest collection of stories, though if I had to point to one to read above all others it would likely be the very first story, “Standard Loneliness Package.” It is by far the most developed, both creatively and in terms of its characters.

That is, perhaps, my only true complaint with the collection—that some of the stories feel less developed than others, which is more apparent when placed one after the other, when their sometimes obvious similarities are made visible. Read separately, I think certain entries like “Yeoman,” “Designer Emotion 67,” and “Note to Self” would stand stronger, but when placed within the collection their highlights are dampened by the stories surrounding them.

Charles Yu is a little bit Philip K. Dick crossed with Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut. Not a terribly original set of comparisons, I’m sorry to say, but it rings true nonetheless. Though Sorry Please Thank You doesn’t reach the same giddy heights as How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, it is in itself a bright, highly amusing collection, and another notch in the belt of an original, accomplished creative voice.

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