[the book rat project] Week 18: Submitted for your approval . . .




It's time for another installment of the Book Rat Project, the sustained experiment in which a book critic (my Phoenix colleague Eugenia Williamson) attempts to act as a human algorithm for a willing subject (me).


This time around Eugenia picked Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu. She picked this one based on my love of Kurt Vonnegut and some solid blurbs from the IO9 community (she knows I’m a fan of the site). So how did she do?


She knocked it out of the park.


In Sorry Please Thank You, any unpleasant experience can be avoided, for a price; two night-shift workers at a big-box store—post zombie outbreak—manage to overcome their fear of intimacy; a band of MMORPG players discover what they’re willing to sacrifice for each other, and for enlightenment. These are some of the tamer adventures; there’s also a prose-poem instructing would-be users on a machine that grants wishes, and what might be best described as a meditation on the fictional implications of the Incompleteness Theorem.


And while the concepts drew me in, it was the characters that kept me reading. From the man that’s paid to experience the grief of others, to the author of a manual on dealing with immediate family members, to the yeomen whose only job is to die so the captain will have something to report, every character is confronting an unvarnished, chaotic, and often, heart-breaking universe that would make little sense if not for the people that inhabit and endure its odd landscapes. Some have compared Yu to Douglas Adams, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Yu’s universe, while just as strange and subject to improbabilities, is ultimately a darker place to visit, more Twilight Zone than Doctor Who.


The best comparisons, though it feels a little hyperbolic to say, might be made with Vonnegut’s more pessimistic novels, books like Cat’s Cradle, Deadeye Dick, and Timequake. With Sorry Please Thank You, Yu has achieved something rare: an aggressively imagined work of fiction in which the concepts (mostly) serve the characters. Pick it up and kiss your weekend good-bye.


The Book Rat Letter Grade: A-


-- Charles Yu will be reading at Brookline Booksmith on  Wednesday, August 1st

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