I am reading a new book by Charles Yu called Sorry Please Thank You. It is a collection of stories that I bought on a lark because of an article I read in Poets & Writers. Yu seems like a super-friendly, quiet sort of fellow and he has a delightfully creative mind. You can tell he is a young guy (not only by the photo on the dust jacket) and he has a clear, easy-to-read style that reminds me of Jonathan Safran Foer.
I read the first four stories this morning because for some reason my brain woke up at 4:45 and I couldn’t go back to sleep. The first story is called “Standard Loneliness Package.” Wow. What a trip! Technology has figured out how to transfer the pain from one person to another, and a booming service industry has appeared in which you can pay to have someone else experience your pain for you. Funerals are most common. The death of a cousin is $500, a sibling is $1250, a parent is $2000. Attending your kid’s recital is $125/hr. Church is $150.
You can also pay for someone else to take your pain in the dentist chair. Or a bad day on the stock market. Heartbreak is one of the most expensive. Death of a child is on a quote-only basis. Most people cannot afford it.
The story is told in first person by a guy who works for a pain transfer service. It is the usual service call scene – he has so many tickets to fill each day, has friends in the cubicles next to him, falls in love with a quiet new girl in the cube across the aisle.
I have to congratulate Charles Yu for a great story. I was taken right into the moment, but never overburdened with the horrifying notion that is the basis of the story – that you could have a job in which all you do all day is receive other people’s pain electronically. It is wistful and light-hearted, and full of basic human longings. I can’t stop thinking about it.
The other stories I read this morning were also pretty good, but he definitely opened with a strong one. All totally original. He get full marks for originality.
The criticism I have is this. Stephen King is quoted as saying, “A short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.” What I think he means is that short stories are limited by their very nature. Maybe they are the perfect size for today’s short-attention-span society. But you will always have a truncated experience with a short story. It may be exciting and sensual, like a kiss, but you still come away from it without having developed that wonderful friendship with the characters. They remain strangers, as does the author.
The other thing I want to point out has probably been the subject of many blogs and essays, but I will say it again. It takes more skill to make a traditional 3rd person narrative hold the reader’s attention nowadays. Something has happened and it seems like more and more stories are taking the easier route and using 1st person because of the instant connectivity you have with the character who is speaking directly to you.
Charles Yu’s stories leaning heavily on the 1st person, though I did flip through the book and found at least one or two that are 3rd person. But it seems like most short stories and many novels are sticking with 1st person. This may not be too big of a problem, but it does create a different mood or reading experience.
For one thing, it is difficult to describe a scene in 1st person. “There was a dwindling fire in the fireplace and she saw his dark figure distorted through the rim of her glass of chardonnay at her lips…” What you will get is more psychology and less location, more being in the speaker’s mind rather than being in the place feeling, smelling, seeing the action.
Again, this is probably due to the tastes of many contemporary readers. But I wonder to what extent it is an indication of further loss of some literary discipline in our society.