Charles Yu’s stories are indescribable. Really. Every time I picked up this recent collection, my face broke out in a goofy, uncertain grin, because I was totally unsure of what I might encounter next.
Here’s what I can tell you …
Thirteen stories are divided into four categories: Sorry, Please, Thank You, All of the Above. The utter commonplace nature of those words are in sharp contrast to the surreal tales contained within. In “Standard Loneliness Package” – my personal favorite – a young man works in a whole new sort of call center in Bangalore, India, where any and all unwanted emotions can be outsourced: “Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you.” In “First Person Shooter,” a lovelorn young man working “the graveyard shift at WorldMart” helps a zombie “pull together a decent-looking outfit.” In “Hero Absorbs Major Damage,” a chicken-craving warrior and his quickly debilitating army just might be at the mercy of a 9-year-old god “whose mom keeps yelling at him to clean up his room.” In “Yeoman” (which surely is doing the wink, wink nod at Star Trek‘s randy Captain Kirk), a man with an eight-months-pregnant wife faces death at the end of the week – because that’s just part of his job. In “Adult Contemporary,” a would-be homebuyer tries to escape the controlling narrator in his own head.
You could definitely just read each of the 13 stories as pieces of quirky entertainment and be contentedly done. But by book’s end, you’d be hard-pressed not to be disturbed by a heavy sense of disconnect. Outsourced feelings, a device to store your wishes and desires, a guide to “extended family relationships,” the self separated from an “alternate self,” the latest “God pill” … as sci-fi as some of that initially sounds, Yu’s imagined worlds are sharply unsettling commentary on our lives now, with too many of our children wandering cyberspace, our thousands of virtual ‘friends,’ our genetically-modified foods, our designer drugs, and on and on.
While his work defies labels and categorization, Yu himself has been part of the literary elite since 2007 when he was named one of the “5 Under 35” by the National Book Foundation, presenters of the National Book Awards. With two collections and a novel already praised, prized, and awarded, imagine what Yu will do by the time he’s 55.