A blurb on the jacket of Charles Yu’s short story collection Sorry. Please. Thank you. Stories. compares the young author to Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, and while I can see why Yu might call to mind Vonnegut (less so, Adams), I found myself thinking more of the French postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard than either of these two science fiction writers.
At a glance, the men are separated not only by years (Baudrillard was 77 when he passed away in 2007; Yu is 37), but also by culture, language and of course, genre. And yet, both Baudrillard and Yu are fixated on image, identity, and what has come to be known as “late mature capitalism”. Which is not to say that Yu’s stories are pedantic or academic—they are not. Indeed, many are poignant and touching. At times, they are inspirational and uplifting. Often, they are funny.
However, behind each of these stories seems to lurk the possibility that we may all be (to borrow from Philip K. Dick) “cosmic puppets”, and that somehow none of this may be real. In short, Yu’s characters inhabit a Baudrillardian world.
Despite their existential situation—the doubt, the boredom, the alienation inherent in a modern society where even emotions are mediated and simulated—Yu’s characters manage, for the most part, to press on with courage and stoical determination.
William James maintained that there are three things that keep us from committing suicide: our never-say-die pugnacity, our curiosity, and our sense of community. In these stories we meet characters that embody all three of these traits, as well as other virtues.
That said, while Yu’s characters grapple with the big existential questions, more often than not they give up searching for the answers, for some grand narrative that will explain it all. Instead, they opt for something we rarely see in popular art and culture: tenderness.
What is the nature of reality? Does selfhood exist, or is it an imaginary social construction? To what extent am I truly free? These are important questions that philosophers such as Baudrillard have helped us postmoderns to puzzle out. But Yu’s stories suggest that perhaps they are not as important as saying “sorry” or “please” or “thank you” or “I missed you”.
Understanding may be less vital than simply being. And being, Heidegger reminds us, is always being-with-others.
This is a wonderful collection of stories: thought-provoking, moving, humorous and clever. I truly believe that if more people had Yu’s sense of life, the world would be a better place. One driven less by hard dogma and ideology, and more by compassion and sensitivity. We are all in it, whatever “it” may be, together.