A Finite Space, Impossibly Small: Charles Yu at McNally Jackson
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
After Charles Yu was introduced on Tuesday night at McNally Jackson to read from his new collection of short stories, Sorry Please Thank You, he expressed his gratitude toward the store and audience. Yu then made fun of himself, saying, “I took a picture of the sides of all your heads, I hope that’s ok. I won’t post it anywhere public. I’ll use it for private inspiration and when I have readings where nobody shows up.” When a reader starts off with humor, I know they‘ll most likely be reliable and relaxed. The crowd laughed at every one of Yu’s well-played jokes, and that made me trust whatever I was going to be listening to would be enjoyable.
1. Yu reading from the last and title story, which was originally featured as a part of Esquire magazine’s “Napkin Fiction Project.”
The first story Yu read was “Standard Loneliness Package,” which is also the first in his new collection. The story is set in the near future during a time when we can outsource difficult life experiences, so that someone else can replace us to deal with them. The outsourced cubicle character working at ‘Conscience Incorporated’ lives in India” “Death of a cousin is five hundred. Death of a sibling is twelve fifty. Parents are two thousand apiece… The business of bad feeling. For the right price almost any part of life could be avoided.” This is the kind of science fiction that a tiny part of me hopes will inspire some rich, mad scientist to make real one day. Despite the farcical nature of the story and my understanding of the potential ramifications of such an idea, for five minutes it sounded nice.
Making stories feel real — even in their extremely fictional nature — is what Yu thinks makes for successful writing. If the reader feels some kind of communication between him/herself and the story and its characters, then it all becomes larger than just something on a page. After reading from “First Person Shooter,” and the title story “Sorry Please Thank You,” he answered questions from the crowd. My favorite was from a man with a deep voice and a slight drawl who sat behind me and asked what makes readers care about a character. Yu replied with a theory inspired in part by his favorite popular science books: “I think they have to trick your brain into thinking you are experiencing a consciousness… [when they work] novels and short stories have that ability, to be exactly the same thing as communicating with another consciousness.”
Yu also works as a lawyer, and said that he gets some of his inspiration from his day job. Being around people and having a lot to do makes him more productive. His educational background is in science and law, and his writing style is a sort of culmination of those. He’s also inspired by his adolescent interest in comic books, like The Fantastic Four, and writing from the likes of Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, and Donald Antrim. Yu refers to his writing as “soft science fiction” — it sometimes touches on those kinds of theories and ideas as rhetorical devices, but the stories are not solely based in science or scientific theory. Some readers had an issue with his last novel’s lack of scientific theory; they claimed he used the term “science fiction” too loosely. He reads all of his reviews, even on Amazon.com and Goodreads, so snag a copy of Sorry Please Thank You and write a review personally to Yu.