Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics

Books: Mo' Technology, Mo' Problems

An Asian American writer who pens short fiction borrowing tropes from video games and technical manuals? If his work wasn’t so engrossing, we’d have to knock Charles Yu one for reinforcing nerd stereotypes about Asian American men.

And yes, Yu’s latest collection, Sorry Please Thank You, is often engrossing. This is the lawyer-cum-fictionist’s third book, the second of which was the acclaimed novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. The stories in Sorry Please reside in the same science fictional universe, where, sure, the future may hold time travel, robotic dogs, and software that doubles as girlfriend material, but the real drama is still in the emotional wrangling involved. Mo’ technology, mo’ problems.

Take “Standard Loneliness Package,” the book’s opening story, which presents a very jolting and ultimately very moving premise. The first-person narrator is a worker in India to whom the First World has outsourced the dirty task that rich people would gladly pay others to do -- feel people’s pain. The potential for emotional turmoil here is high, and the story delivers as we move quickly between the scenes of misery -- funerals, deathbeds, impending suicide -- that the narrator is paid to experience, and the losses of his own that he can’t outsource to others. It’s a stunner of a story, one that is thankfully followed by a more lighthearted zombie vignette.

Sorry Please Thank You is at its best when Yu intervenes in the inner logic of universes where such interruptions are not supposed to happen. “Hero Absorbs Major Damage” follows a rag-tag group on a quest, placing readers in the midst of a live-action RPG and giving the hero a consciousness and emotions that he isn’t supposed to have. In “Yeoman,” we find that the namesake stock character doesn’t want to die in his assigned mission to the final frontier since it would mean abandoning his pregnant wife. Yu inhabits familiar enough situations and genres so that readers can do without intricate descriptions of high-tech worlds and alternate dimensions. In their place are playful but smart meditations on those very genres.

                                Charles Yu

In the same way that the collection gives emotional lives to stock geek culture characters, it also gives depth to otherwise dry genres, although to different ends. Where “Designer Emotion 67” poses as a CEO’s address to shareholders to satirize the pharmaceutical business, “The Book of Categories” uses the conventions of technical writing to theorize on books and reading. The piece -- it seems to resist the category of story -- describes a book that passes from person to person, with each possessor adding categories, and thus pages, to this book whose high-tech paper can be “sliced and resliced again.” What starts as a concept for the book of the future evolves into a meta-treatise on reading, where the book is a “system of world ordering” networked to past and future ideas.

The commentary and theorizing across each story come through only after an initial scrambling through the first few paragraphs where you’re wondering what the shtick is, is an unfortunate side effect of Yu’s otherwise mostly inventive plots and experimentation. Although his play with tropes can come off as gimmicky, you’d be missing a lot if your appreciation ended there.

While some stories may be too abstract and self-consciously experimental to have the kind of effect of the standouts mentioned above, Sorry Please Thank You is overall a rewarding read. The tech tropes and plots are not so much vehicles for Yu to explore human conditions, but a way to explore how these tropes, increasingly shared beyond sci-fi nerds, shape us and our understanding in ways that we might take for granted.

Marites L. Mendoza lives, reads, and writes in Seattle.

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