“What is the meaning of life?” is one of those questions that every author addresses at some point in their work. In his short story collection Sorry Please Thank You, Charles Yu takes this inquiry and breaks it down even further: “What is meaning?”, “What is life?”, and even “What is ‘is’?” As intellectually heady as these questions are, the stories are told in beguilingly simple prose. Yu has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams for his playful meta-narrative style, and I’ll add that this book takes after Being John Malkovich and The Truman Show too. Perhaps Sorry Please Thank You can be considered Yu’s personal (or possible, or one of multiple) series of answers to Life, the Universe and Everything.
Yu is an up-and-coming SF writer who’s known for his critically-acclaimed novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. It’s not surprising that the impression I get from this collection is that it’s a series of pocket universes that had been chopped off from his novel for later use. The overall collection has a melancholic quality, even at its most lighthearted.
The book is divided into four sections, each taking after the three things in the title, plus the final part “All of the Above.” The opening section “Sorry” deals with all types of loss, for the living, the dead, and the in-between. “Standard Loneliness Package” is my favorite out the entire collection, mainly because of its setting: an overseas call center where its employees are paid to feel the negative emotions of their customers, and people’s time becomes a literal commodity. This keynote piece resonates with the rest of the collection as both a critique of globalization and a search for love in an age of alienation. Matters of the heart take a more humorous turn in “First Person Shooter”: retail employees at a mega-chain must deal with a zombie getting ready for a date. Other stories in this collection are more experimental and introspective. For example, in “Troubleshooting,” the second-person narrator receives a device to helps determine what “you” really want (which is never an easy answer.)
Stories in the other sections range from the metaphysical to the tongue-in-cheek. There are traditionally-told, action-oriented tales that make fun of geek mainstays. “Hero Absorbs Major Damage” follows an insecure Hero living in a D&D/Final Fantasy-style world trying to keep his group together. “Yeoman” is the short-form version of a concept that John Scalzi delightfully spoofs in Redshirts, where the low-ranked crewman of an intergalactic exploration mission tries to figure out how to stay alive by the end of the week. Self-designed worlds are also bought and sold in “Adult Contemporary,” where customers can live out the fictional reality they always wanted – or perhaps they have already been living in this false reality all along. In “Open,” a couple discovers a door that leads to a fantasy (or it is reality?) world where they are act like their idealized selves. On the other hand, a hypothetical Charles Yu persona mulls over what it means to exist as the “What if?” effigy inside the real Charles Yu’s head in the experimental tale “Inventory.” This story compliments another, “Note to Self,” were the narrator figures out how to write to his parallel dimension doppelgangers.
A few of the stories are rather forgettable, though. “Designer Emotion 67” addresses the commercialization of emotions and satirizes Big Capitalism, but didn’t bring up any genuine feeling from me. “The Book of Categories” is a great concept, but felt undeveloped (which was probably part of its point). “Human for Beginners” felt like a floating vignette stuck in the middle of the volume.
Sorry Please Thank You ends on a poignant, but depressing note: a napkin suicide letter that reads as a desperate plea for more random tokens of everyday kindness. “What else can I say? Wish I treated people better. Sorry, please, thank you, you’re welcome. All human interaction pretty much covered by these four ideas,” writes the narrator. These ideas appear to be Yu’s final answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything (at least for now). A simple message, but as these stories exemplify, sometimes the simplest things prove to be the most elusive.
All of the meta may be getting to Ay-leen the Peacemaker’s head – after all, she’s narrating her bio in third person. She is the founding editor of the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana, writes academic things, and tweets on occasion. She is mostly sure she still exists.