The short-story collection Third Class Superhero and debut novel How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe earned Charles Yu comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, but that’s looking a bit too far back. More than any other author, Sorry Please Thank You displays just how indebted Yu is to George Saunders. In an interview with Amazon, Yu acknowledged Saunders’ influence on his work, noting that CivilWarLand In Bad Decline “blew the doors off the empty little space that had previously housed [his] puny imagination.” To Yu’s credit, even the Saunders comparison doesn’t really do his work justice—he has much more pop-culture savvy than Saunders, which more than makes up for being less funny than Adams, and less incisively ruthless than Vonnegut.
The lead story, “Standard Loneliness Package,” blends the mildly comic, otherworldly nature of Saunders’ best stories and novellas with a darkness reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s short fiction, telling the story of a call center where employees feel outsourced negative emotions for customers experiencing grief and loss. Oh, and it’s also a rise-and-fall romance. That kind of ambition mixed with accessibly weird subject matter typifies Yu’s work. “Yeoman” imagines the plight of those unlucky Star Trek redshirts destined never to return from missions with Captain Kirk in a way that’s not only amusing and clever, but also heart-wrenching.
Yu isn’t just spinning out inventive stories in various pop-culture arenas. He does a lot of intricate work to bring archetypal characters and narratives into modern and near-future settings. “Hero Absorbs Major Damage” is the best example of this, the story of an MMORPG party leader whose increasing failures begin to dim his followers’ loyalty. It’s a clever setting and an intriguing plot, but the emotional core of realizing and accepting failure and leadership transition makes the story instantly relatable to anyone unfamiliar with gaming.
Self-referential and philosophical stories like “Inventory” and “The Book Of Categories” overreach ever so slightly beyond Yu’s typically masterful grasp of small-yet-significant story movement. But other fantastical premises, like the metaphysical breakup story “Open” and blink-and-you-miss-it zombie-outbreak story “First Person Shooter” are borderline micro-fiction, yet still pack an emotional punch.
Junot Diaz has a new collection out in fall 2012, and Saunders will release his first short-story collection in six years next February—two literary totems re-entering the fray. But as the third work by Yu—a full-time lawyer as opposed to a creative-writing professor like Diaz and Saunders— Sorry Please Thank You shows he should now be considered a heavy hitter himself.