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English department

Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu

For many readers, the science fiction genre brings to mind dragons and Spock-like space adventurers. These readers would do well, however, to expect something a little different from Charles Yu when reading his third book, Sorry Please Thank You. Not quite the polite read that the title suggests, this collection of short stories explores human relationships in a world where what is real changes with the digitizing of our world.

The book begins with ‘Standard Loneliness Package,’ a story about life in a pain outsourcing center in India. “Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let us have it for you,” runs the company slogan. The unnamed narrator goes to work every day to feel the “standardized and packetized” pain/heartbreak/loneliness for rich customers who don’t want to be bothered with it. “I am at a funeral. I am in a dentist’s chair. I am lying next to someone’s husband in a motel room feeling guilty.” The story entertains as it serves as a sly double commentary about both a society that would shift their pain onto others, and one that would willingly experience it for a price. “Press one to clear your conscience. Press two for fear of death.”

Yu maintains the same voice throughout the collection, a deprecating tone that fits the unlikely heroes who star in each story. At times that tone is refreshing, a constant throughout the book that the reader can recognize in each story. In ‘Hero Absorbs Major Damage’ showcases a Hero in a video game who has serious doubts about the intelligence of anyone who chooses him as their Hero. As the Hero and his team battle towards “the Final Battle, Battle 256”, his self-confidence wavers as the team’s patron god turns out to be a snotty-nosed nine-year-old, and a “warrior-mystic”, Krungor, appears who is more hero-like than the Hero will ever be. While the Hero finally accepts his as Hero, “I am still the Hero. I am still here. This was my story”, he still doubts the wisdom of his decisions: “Things will suck if I go back down there. All of my friends might get killed. And even if they live, they will be horribly maimed and probably blame me forever.”

While Yu’s tone turns out charmingly well at times, in other stories such as ‘Inventory’ the constant questioning and second guessing turns stagnant, bringing the story to a standstill. The narrator describes the story well “I can’t seem to build up any kind of momentum. Details distract me.” While the premise of ‘Inventory’ is interesting—the narrator being the negative-self of Charles Yu: living Yu’s dreams and living out the could-have-beens. Are you confused yet? Adding to the ‘simple’ plot, the narrator has no idea what’s going on either, and we get to experience his quest for meaning in a world where there is none. The story’s saving grace is its formatting; Yu makes very effective use of white space and positioning make otherwise repetitive questions poignant.

‘Inventory’ is a perfect example of Yu’s greatest strength—setting—and his biggest weakness—failing to take advantage of it. Another example is ‘Open’, a story about a couple struggling to stay together who find the word “Open” floating in their living room. The refreshingly new setting turns out rather flat. The floating word “Open” becomes a door leading to a dinner party in another dimension where “[the Narrator] could feel myself not quite being myself, but a little better, wittier, like I was doing everything for the benefit of someone else.” The narrator never quite catches the sense of who he is or why the door appeared, and continues to wonder as his girlfriend rides the word “door” off into the sunset and he stands there wondering whether to follow or not.

Despite the flagging action in some places, Yu’s style of writing and poignant insights into the human condition will keep the reader’s attention in the end. The last story, ‘Sorry Please Thank You’ is narrated by a man writing his suicide note on a cocktail napkin. “Sorry, please, thank you, you’re welcome. All human interaction pretty much covered by those four ideas.” He knows the answer to what we all want, something that every story has been searching for in its own way: “I hope you read this, whoever you are, and imagine that there is a hypothetical person out there who needs your love, has waiting silently, patiently for it all his life.” All we need is love. Does that cliché seem a bit beaten to death? Perhaps, but the fact that ‘Sorry Please Thank You’ is a ground breaking work and pulls of its subject without slipping into cliché is a testament to Yu’s skill.

Sorry Please Thank You is a refreshing and entertaining read that will remind you of why it’s a good idea to browse the new authors section.