Most of the writing in the new short-story collection by Charles Yu, Sorry Please Thank You, is either narrated by or focuses on a lonesome, timid, self-conscious guy in his twenties or thirties who’s working a lousy job—or one he can’t accept the responsibility for. The catch of the book is that something science-fictionally surreal or fantastic is always going on within the worlds of these dithering, sentimental protagonists.
For instance, the narrator of the opening story, “Standard Loneliness Package,” works at a dystopian call center in India where the employees have to—via some sort of unspecified, consciousness-carrying technology—endure for the customers the fear, the embarrassment, the shame, among other things, of funerals, dentist appointments, plane rides, and other uncomfortable experiences. Or in “First Person Shooter,” the lovesick leading character works the graveyard shift at WorldMart, a store that’s open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. One night, while working alongside the girl he has a crush on, a female zombie comes into the store and, instead of wanting to maul the humans and devour their brains, looks for some lipstick to get ready for a date (a date with whom is never quite made clear).
Then there’s “Hero Absorbs Major Damage,” in which the narrator is the awkward star of an RPG sword-and-sorcery video game and who has to survive a sophomoric existential dilemma when he’s transported out of the virtual world and into the bedroom of the nine-old-year named Fred who’s been controlling his reality. In between these stories are obnoxious meta-fictional page-fillers with titles like “Inventory” or “Note to Self,” in which Yu does little more than have vague, indulgent, uninteresting conversations with himself about how writing works or about how confusing life can be.
Sorry Please Thank You may derive some cleverness by uniquely setting its fictions within such worlds as a video game or a sci-fi South Asian call center, but every one of these stories feels flimsy and pat; the crises of these characters are too reductive and too quickly concluded with nothing more than a wishy-washy carpe diem. Look, for example, at the last few lines of the penultimate story, “Adult Contemporary”:
His life is not a dramedy. There is no arc. No episodes, no tuning in next week, no sound track, no ending, happy or sad. He may or may not have cancer. He may or may not have anyone who cares. He has a son in the world, somewhere, who might or might not think of Murray every day. Not much else. Not enough for a story, Murray thinks, here at the edge of his own story, but it will have to do, somehow it’s going to have to be enough, and somehow it is. It’s enough.
But it’s never quite enough. There are similarities in Sorry Please Thank You to the self-aware, hyper-literary, short-fictional gizmos of a David Foster Wallace or a J. L. Borges, but to successfully assemble that kind of writing one must be as studiously and compulsively well-read as a Wallace or a Borges, and one suspects that Yu just didn’t have enough of an encyclopedic toolbox with which to put together the pieces of these stories. It could also be that Yu does have those tools, but that he wore them out with his first two books, the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and the short-story collection Third Class Superhero. Whatever the explanation may be, my response to Yu’s collection is, “No thanks.”
Pantheon released Charles Yu’s Sorry Please Thank You on July 24. To purchase it, click here.