Popular culture constantly explores the long-standing relationship between the fantastical worlds of science fiction and other elements of humanity. In Sorry Please Thank You, Charles Yu continues that tradition with a story collection where characters forage, not always successfully, through surreal realms and strange circumstances to find only that they cannot escape themselves.
Such a concept is the not-unusual idea that lies at the heart of Sorry Please Thank You, a set of stories that despite such bizarre circumstances are remarkably transparent in their message. As technology advances and dependence upon it increases, it is natural that modern literature address these cultural concepts. Doing so, though, should be done with care that thinking upon such issues does not overtly condone or condemn them. The writing in Sorry Please Thank You lacks the required subtlety of such reflection.
The blatancy of these stories is immediately brought to the reader’s attention with the first story, “Standard Loneliness Package,” which is quite good and starts the collection off strong. In this imaginative tale, consciousness can be transferred (for a price, of course) to workers who live as a person for a brief period of time, say an hour or so, while that person deals with an unpleasant experience, thus allowing said person to avoid facing a funeral or a breakup or a hospital visit. Yu’s point is obvious: everyone knows that experiences, good and bad, are important to one’s development, even if one does not want to admit it. Denying such experiences harms an individual, their loved ones, and our society. The realization that avoidance is detrimental to a person is shown here through the narrator, one of the workers who will “have a bad day for you.”
The second story, “First Person Shooter,” forces a guy to confront a terrifying situation: asking a girl out—never mind the zombie walking through the store where they both work. Again, another obvious message, but it is a fun story nevertheless. The repetition of such back-to-back stories that despite being okay are similar enough to make neither great should present a warning flag to readers. The stylistic similarities connecting these writings makes them redundant and consequently boring. The collection would likely be better if it contained more versatile characters and settings, which would give greater variety and vitality to the stories. Thus, even without having read Yu’s other book, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, readers must question if there is any versatility to Yu’s writing at all.
Something that Yu’s writing does not lack is references to popular culture. In “Yeoman,” the reader is introduced to a character that is an extra in what is clearly a Star Trek universe, though not expressly named. Yu pokes fun at the typical characters that comprise a Star Trek cast, but there is a sort of sadness present also. The story suggests that perhaps the only way human beings can really identify ourselves is through our artistic creations, which are inevitably flawed, and those flaws are merely repeated until all stories are nothing more than a tedious and bleak parody. The message seems to be that when hope is absent, expression is just another troubling emotion.
The ensuing trouble with the writing is also from the aesthetic layout of the book, because certain stories make use of the ever-increasingly-popular spending of whole pages on one sentence of text, as in the story “Inventory,” and the odd formatting of text, which occurs in the stories “Troubleshooting” and “The Book of Categories,” both of which consistently use numbered phrases and bulleted points. Such presentation suggests not a story but an outline for what could have been a real story that Yu was never able to cement. The constant use of bullet points and one-sentence pages creates nostalgia for the days where text actually filled the pages of a book and the elements of a story, like plot, setting, and characters, could be appreciated inside of a linear, fully-developed, and well-written tale.
Of course, it is likely to be argued that Yu is being deliberately ironic when shaping stories in this way. Yu forces a reading of things that seem more like sales projections and business reports than fiction so that he can show how marketing saturation and technology harm humanity by removing capacity for intellectual thought and artistic expression. Okay. That does not mean, however, that readers should be bombarded by the message so repeatedly. To do so transforms the stories into the form of advertisement and the type of propaganda that they are trying to discredit.