Charles Yu, Third Class Superhero, Harcourt, 2006

[Review Guidelines]

For those 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. [AW]