Sorry, Please, Thank You is a collection of short stories by Charles Yu. They range from humorous and absurdist tales like how a store clerk helps a zombie woman get ready for her date to more experimental pieces like a list on how to troubleshoot your life. All of the stories have a whimsical, magical-realist feel to them with fantastical elements that are rarely explained. In the end it isn’t these elements that really influence what the story is about. Instead it is the introspective and self-evaluating nature of the characters Yu creates, almost all of whom question themselves, their purpose, and the meaning of things, that carry the stories.
In the stories “Hero Absorbs Major Damage” and “Yeoman” we find satires of nerdy media. In the former story, a video game character involved in a long and ongoing fantasy quest questions the meanings of his actions and tries to figure what his purpose is as he strives to inspire his group of followers to continue onward with him. The latter follows a Yeoman on a starship stuck in a series of rerun adventures who struggles to come to terms with his inevitable fate as a disposable member of the ship’s away team. These stories successfully poke fun (good naturedly) at the genres they come from and make us look at the medium or setting from a different perspective.
Other stories like “Standard Loneliness Package”, “Designer Emotion 67”, and “Adult Contemporary” explore how corporations sell us our lives. In these stories lives and emotions can quite literally be bought and sold, but we can see that Yu is ultimately addressing the way that companies market themselves and sell a lifestyle, ideal, or image that goes along with their product. At the same time (and maybe more importantly), the stories, especially “Standard Loneliness Package” and “Adult Contemporary” play on the idea of how people wait for their lives to really start or believe that they will only be living when they reach a certain milestone that they’ve set.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, there are some stories with interesting or experimental narrative techniques. “Designer Emotion 67”, for instance, is actually written as a speech that a company CEO is reading. “The Book of Categories” catalogs the different properties of the mysterious Book of Categories while also conveying some details about the life of a man named Chang Hsueh-liang who is the only person to have ever been in possession of this particular book more than six times. Then there is “Troubleshooting” which provides a users guide to troubleshoot problems with a device that grants its owner’s desires.
Throughout all of the stories there is a common thread of loneliness and a search for some greater meaning and purpose in the world. What is our purpose? Why are we here? What is it that we even want? The protagonists (or narrators) seek some kind of greater purpose or understanding in a chaotic, dreary, and unfair world. They ask the kinds of questions we ourselves ask all the time, even when we’re not in some strange, unearthly place.
Perhaps the best example of this is “Inventory” a story where the narrator keeps on waking up in different places every day. This constant state of displacement leads him to question his purpose and his existence and what is happening in his life.
“What if I go through my life and never ask that one key question, that one what-if that I am supposed to be asking myself?”
He eventually finds that he is some strange alternate version of someone else, someone living a normal life. He also finds a woman he thinks he loves, but it’s hard to know or stay on top of things when he keeps changing locales every day. In the end he comes to a conclusion about how he is going to move forward, despite the unique difficulty of his existence.
“…the first thing I do, doesn’t matter where I am, in the ocean, on the moon of some minor distant planet, doesn’t matter where, doesn’t matter if she knows who I am or if I know who she is or how strong gravity is or if I feel terrible or if the world is logically impossible, the first thing I do if she’s there, is I tell her how nice it is to see her.”
Oftentimes, as in this story, it seems that the protagonists do find meaning in some fashion or another, but it is not always the kind of meaning they expected, and usually it doesn’t make the world any better. But, it’s the kind of meaning and fulfillment we are used to settling for in our own lives, a kind that is very human.