Monday, April 4, 2016

Long Reviews of Short Stories: Charles Yu's "Third Class Superhero"

With names like "401(k)" and "32.05864991%" and “Two-Player Infinitely Iterated Simultaneous Semi-cooperative Game with Spite and Reputation Autobiographical Raw Material Unsuitable for the Mining of Fiction,” it is a fair guess in just perusing the table of contents of this short story collection that is both quirky and probably written by a former science major or something. And both inferences are accurate.

Though I’m not much of a short story fan, I was drawn to this colorful paperback’s cover and science-fiction-y title. I was not disappointed with the content. Short stories have a tendency for being minimalist, a bit ambiguous, and existential. Again, I was not disappointed. Some stories, like “Realism” are so bleak as to almost feel like a cliché of Bleakness. What Yu does differently with his writing than most other contemporary storytellers is incorporating technobabble almost seamlessly into his world-building.    

Problems for Self-Study

“A and B are sliding down a frictionless inclined plane. They are accelerating toward the inevitable. Domesticity. Some marriages are driven by love, some by gravity.”

To me, this is the most interesting and memorable short story in the collection. Written in terms of a math class word problem, it’s about a logical man, A, and the romance, relationship, and eventual division from his more emotional wife, B.  For A, everything is theoretical and cerebral. He does not live in a flesh-and-blood reality, but rather thinks in terms of formulae and hypotheticals. For him, anything that can be worked out, even in the mind, is possible, and is reality.  It’s not a happy story.  But it is fascinating. 

My Last Days as Me

“Just to get things straight: Me is sixteen years old. I am twenty-two. I have been playing Me for as long as I can remember.”

Ostensibly this is about an actor coming to grips with being replaced by a younger model. It’s about his struggles with the new actress who plays his mother.  Ostensibly, this is a story grown out of some sort of Creative Writer’s Prompts. 

But what if the narrator is unreliable? What if it’s the twisted perspective of a regular guy and his relationship with his family and everyday life? He doesn’t want reality to be deep, hurtful, or messy. He’d much rather impose an imaginary “sitcom” reality on himself and everyone else, where the emotions are nuanced but not expressed, and where his suddenly-depressed, needy mother is not acceptable. 

The Man Who Became Himself

“He began to understand belief and doubt in David, faith and knowledge, forgetting and remembering. He learned that although David felt plenty of shame and guilt, David did not feel sorry. David never felt sorry. He was sorry, but David never was.”

It all begins with a telemarketer call. Suddenly David Howe feels another person awaken inside of him, a person who is not David Howe, a person who feels confusion, like that telemarketer had a wrong number.  Slowly that alter ego begins to exact more control over the man’s body until he has completely transformed his consciousness.  This one was weird, particularly with the pronouns. But I liked it because it seemed to symbolize increasing self-awareness, an epiphany of where this man’s life has led up to now, its disappointments and mistakes. There’s a sense of redemption as this new person takes over.


“Four years go by.

A faraway star implodes.

Something happens. Somewhere.”

I want so much to understand this story. In a distant future where humans are scattered amongst the cosmos and humanity has all but lost its sense of relationships and intimacy, the narrator’s only contact is via messaging with his boss across a vast distance of time and space.  Distance. That’s the word that best describes this story. The narrator is in love with Tina, who left him because his world was cold. He hasn’t seen her for years, but he lives in hope that she’ll return, someday. Or some year. Or some millennia. The time itself is relative, and in the narrator’s lonely life often drags on by eons. 

Yet for nothing much happening, for all the narrator’s waiting and solitude loneliness and possible insanity due to lack of contact with fellow beings, he doesn’t seek it or understand how much he misses it. He avoids opening messages from his boss. He puts off visiting his Aunt Betty until it’s too late. He never makes an effort to go after Tina, or leave whatever frigid, forlorn rock he’s sitting on. 

This story reminds me a lot about suffering from depression. It’s a disease that almost has its own sentience, which makes you miserable but also paralyzes you into complacency. You don’t like things how they are, you have a vague feeling of dull hurt or misery, but at the same time that dullness deadens you, disables you from seeking change or help or even other human contact. You become morose, and time seems to pass too slowly, yet you have the uneasy sense that life is draining away without you really enjoying it. There’s an unspecified shame that keeps you from wanting to socialize with other people—people who seem happy, people who you secretly love and want them to love you back—and slowly your demeanor changes until people don’t want to socialize with you, either. It’s a vicious, interminable cycle. And it takes a lot of mustering of courage, of honesty, of adventure to break that cycle and seek the change that will eventually set you free. Will the change be worth all the effort it takes to muster that energy? Even if it isn’t, it has to be better than letting time run through your fingers. 

Third-Class Superhero

“1. I am not a superhero.
2. I have to go to work
3. If I didn’t have to work, I could be a superhero.
4. If I were a superhero, I wouldn’t have to work.”

Moisture Man.  If you ask me, with a moniker like that, I’d stay ordinary. But middle-aged, mundane, and slightly neurotic (as almost all Yu’s narrators in these stories are) Moisture Man isn’t willing to stay ordinary. His superpower is confined to absorbing the moisture from the air around him and then redirect it as a spurt of water. Which isn’t much good unless for distraction purposes, or watering people’s plants when they’re out of town. Every year Moisture Man takes a test, trying to upgrade his status. Every year he’s overlooked in favor of bigger, brighter up-and-comers. 

His only friends are Golden Boy, who sometimes takes pity on him and lets him come along to Epic Superhero Battles—where Moisture Man usually makes  fool of himself—and Henry, an old man dying of alcoholism and a wasted life. Both fit a spectrum of Moisture Man’s own character. Golden Boy is who Moisture Man aspires to be. Henry is who Moisture Man fears becoming. And then there’s a pivotal choice to be made: Does it matter whether you’re a superhero or a super-villain, as long as you are super?

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