who like parlor games: if Charles Yu were a vegetable in the supermarket,
which vegetable would he be? The answer is a zucchini. As a rule it avoids
the limelight, keeping to one side, not hogging center stage like the
beckoning tomatoes or the crown-wearing broccoli. Even in the hands of
a gourmet, the zucchini reluctantly stands apart from or above its companions,
unlike, say, garlic, which won't be ignored. And yet it's the funniest,
most human of all produce, if such a thing can be said, and I think it
can—equally at home in the theatre of the absurd as it is in the
pants of a commedia dell'arte clown. (Little wonder that only the Italians,
who gave us the commedia, really know how to do zucchini.) To receptive
taste buds, the pleasure it can give is superb.
Take the title story of Charles Yu's debut
collection, Third Class Superhero. Nathan is at the breaking
point. After watching his more gifted peers scale the superheroic career
ladder while he languishes as Moisture Man ("My power, if you can
call it that...is that I am able to take about two gallons of water from
the moisture in the air and shoot it in a stream or a gentle mist"),
he's beginning to realize that he'll never be like them. Never strike
fear into the hearts of evildoers. Never have his own secret hideout.
Never fly. He's required to submit to a yearly exam just to keep his "good
guy" status active. On the day of the exam, he wonders: how long
can he keep being passed over? How many next times can there be?
I look around at the people in there with me. To
my left is Itch-Inducer Boy. To my right is a pebble shooter. Over by
the door are Malaise Man, The Fatiguer, and the Nauseator aka Slight
Discomforto. Burnouts, all of them. And they are no doubt thinking the
same about me. All of us crammed into this sweatbox, each with the same
thought bubble over his spandex-costumed head—I'm the diamond
in the rough, just wait, world, you've underestimated me—each
thinking he's the late bloomer, the one who is going on forty but has
enormous untapped potential thus far stymied by a combination of bad
luck and small-minded admissions committees.
Sooner or later, Moisture Man has to decide. Is it
worth being a good guy?
The voice is typical of the stories in
this collection. Ironic, pathetic, dry. The hardened, fatalistic sound
of someone who's been beat down, who can't catch a break, can't fix anything,
can't win, can't understand, and yet can't stop trying to understand.
In some ways, it's the voice of the whole book. In "32.05864991%,"
a man fails to realize that the girl in the grocery store who answers
his invitation to dinner with "maybe" means neither yes nor
no, but precisely the probability expressed in the story's title. And
in "My Last Days as Me," a popular TV show based on the life
of a simulated family gets shaken up when the actor playing Me can't handle
working with his new Mother.
Yu's lonely characters are appealing
not because of their deadpan delivery or their Kafkaesque lifestyles,
nor is it because we're allowed to glimpse the chinks in their armor.
Their armor is almost always full of chinks. Rather, we come to care about
them in those rare moments when, as in "Man of Quiet Desperation
Goes on Vacation," an anonymous schlub who watches his own life from
a dispassionate distance suddenly rallies some feeling, some feeble fight
left within him, and looks around for a way to let it out. At one point
in that story, Man, 46, finds himself staring at a shelf in a bookstore:
What is he starting to realize? And where does it
come from? From up above? Down below? Certainly not from inside, because
what, if anything, ever happens like that? Maybe for geniuses. But he
isn't a genius. Anyone who would buy a book entitled Organize Your
Days, who would read a book called Get a Life, anyone
who needs this kind of advice is not a genius. These are not books for
geniuses. These are not books written by geniuses. These are books for
people who have trouble with things you aren't even supposed to have
trouble with. These are books for ordinary people, for the mass of men.
This is where the power of these stories resides. In
the lines of reference to the mass of men. Yu's penchant for emotionally
detached narration, anonymous characters, and wildly experimental forms
can sometimes obscure the fact that he can write intensely moving prose
about everyday, ordinary themes: hollow relationships, parental guilt,
the inability to express our most important feelings. We read about superfreaks
and office slaves and broken-hearted souls stranded all alone on distant
planets, and their circumstances seem to bear no relation to our own—and
yet, somewhere in the turn of the page, we discover that here indeed are
our own lives. Here are the issues we face. Here are our own fears. Here
are the half-truths, deceptions, and self-deceptions that help us all
get through the day.
What a riot.
But in fact, fiction of this caliber really
can help you get through the day. I would even suggest that this is one
of those books best read in moments stolen from work, between assignments,
while the boss isn't watching. The short chunks of text and episodic structure
of the stories make just that sort of clandestine thrill-seeking possible.
George Saunders, whose influence can occasionally be felt in some of Yu's
work, has often talked about how he used to revise his stories on company
time. And James Dickey, whose work bears no relation to Yu's at all and
is only thrown in here for the hell of it, once described his early years
as an advertising rep who moonlighted as a poet as selling your soul to
the devil all day and trying to buy it back at night.
Why stay up late, dear reader? Get a little
piece of your soul back now.
Go ahead, try the zucchini. It's in season.