As I have mentioned here before, I don’t often read short fiction. I think part of the reason for that is that I simply prefer the longer novel form, with its possibilities for bigger stories and deeper, more complex character development. So you might be a little surprised when I say that one of the very best books I read this year was a collection of short stories: Charles Yu’s Sorry Please Thank You, an elegant assemblage of speculative fiction that I can’t recommend highly enough.
Yu does wonders with these pieces—each one is carefully crafted, and each one manages to tell a very big story in a very small space. Some of these stories are funny, some are poignant, some are scary, and some will bend your brain over backwards. Some will do all of those and more. It’s quite an accomplishment.
Highlights for me included:
- “Standard Loneliness Package”, which explores the idea that someday we’ll pay someone to have our bad days for us. The poor sucker gets hooked into the customer’s head and takes over the feelings—physical and emotional. There’s a price, of course, on both sides.
- “First Person Shooter”, where a young man working in a big box store is having difficulty asking a young woman he’s interested in out for a date, only to encounter a zombie in the cosmetics department, trying to find the perfect lipstick for her date.
- “Hero Absorbs Major Damage”, which cleverly and amusingly envisions life inside the complex world of a computer game, right down to what a Higher Power might be like in such a world (I should note that I really enjoyed this particularly story even though I’m not a gamer—I suspect that if I played these kinds of games I’d have loved it even more). On the other hand, maybe life IS a computer game and we are all but players in it…
- “Note to Self”—imagine there are multiple yous in multiple dimensions. Now imagine they’re all in touch with you.
- “The Book of Categories”, where the author posits that our lives are just entries, carefully categorized and listed, in one large book that we all maintain chapters of.
There’s quite a variety here, overall, and it’s possible that one or two of the thirteen stories in this collection might not appeal to you, but those are pretty good odds that you’ll like most of it. I actually liked every story in here, something that rarely happens for me with these kinds of collections. If I were charting my level of like, it would range from “Wow, that was really really good” to “Holy crap that blew my mind”. What impressed me was the range of questions these stories asked—everything from “who’s having the worse day, you or the zombie missing a finger?” to “if you were offered the opportunity to live a more gratifying life, but one that was going to be much shorter and more painful than the longer, more mundane one you’re likely to have, would you trade?” (and in that story, “Adult Contemporary”, the secondary question is “Are you willing to pay the price for short, painful, but more gratifying?” Which gets into the whole question of what, exactly, it is we are looking for in order to be able to define our lives as meaningful).
And how would you feel about getting a note from another you in another dimension?
What I also liked in this collection was the display of narrative tricks he pulled out of his bag. I’m a sucker for interesting narrative structures, so when the various first person voices in “Note to Self” start writing notes to each other, I was fascinated to see how he’d differentiate between the selves. Or if he would-if they’re all the same yous, just in different dimensions, wouldn’t they sound like you? Or how the corporate cheerleading speech in “Designer Emotion” is written in true speech form. There is also the title story, a note written on a napkin in a bar–I really can’t say what kind of note, or go into any more details without spoiling the story, alas.
That story, “Sorry Please Thank You” is the one minor weakness in this collection, if only because it doesn’t really seem to fit with the others. As a story qua story, it’s terrific. But it seems a little out of place with the others for some reason that I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on. So that’s just me and not really any flaw with the story.
In the title story, the unnamed narrator points out that all the fundamentals of human existence boil down to four ideas: sorry, please, thank you, you’re welcome—“the greeting card rack” at your local drugstore. Those ideas, however simple, are still so complex that humans often can’t deal with them. Yu takes a really hard look at how we choose to live our lives through these stories—afraid of pain, afraid of emotions, afraid of fear, afraid of death, and most especially afraid of being meaningless, forgotten specks in a vast universe, but what he does not do is lecture or hector or belittle. He merely asks some very gentle questions. Can we only be heroes in our imaginations, or when pushed into heroic deeds– or is just getting through the day heroic enough?
I was so intrigued by all of these pieces that I began researching Yu’s backlist to see what else he has available. I’m so hoping someone puts a copy of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe under my Christmas tree this year. Hint hint. It looks like a blast, and if this collection is any indication, it should be a heady mixture of fun and thought-provoking, a combination that, for me, is totally irresistable.
My copy of this book was generously provided by the publisher during my tenure at RT Book Reviews, and I initially reviewed it for that publication. It is a nominee for Science Fiction Book of the Year for RT.