Saturday, October 23, 2010

Yu's fanciful debut would have benefited from warp drive

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel
by Charles Yu

There's a great deal to like in Charles Yu's debut novel, and not much to hate. It's the story of a reclusive time machine repairman also named Charles Yu. Yu has sort of been drifting through life, a not very active participant. He lives in a closet-sized time machine with a fictional dog:

"It's not comfortable in here. But it's not not comfortable either. It's neutral, it's the null point on the comfort-discomfort axis, the exact fulcrum, the precise coordinate located between the half infinity of positive comfort values to the right and the half infinity of negative values on the left. To live in here is to live at the origin, at zero, neither present nor absent, a denial of self- and creature-hood to an arbitrarily small epsilon-delta limit. Can you live your whole life at zero? Can you live your entire life in the exact point between comfort and discomfort? You can in this device. My father designed it that way."

He has a crush on his computer's operating system:

"Is TAMMY's curvilinear pixel configuration kind of sexy? Yes it is. Does she have chestnut-colored hair and dark brown eyes behind pixilated librarian glasses and a voice like a cartoon princess? Yes and yes and yes. Have I ever, in all my time in this unit, ever done you know what to a screenshot of you know who? I'm not going to answer that."

For me, the principal joy of this novel was Yu's delightful use of language, often amusing and Jasper Fforde-clever, but also philosophical and even poignant at times. Where Fforde mostly sticks to peppering his novels with literary references, no aspect of pop culture is off-limits to Yu:

"Client call. Screen says


And my first thought is oh, man, wow, but when I get there, it's not you know who, with the man-blouse and soft boots and the proficiency at wielding light-based weapons. It's his son. Linus."

So, this is all charming, right? Where the book falls down is narrative drive. The novel opens with Yu offering some exposition about his life, the world, and the ins and outs of time travel. So far, so good. However, it bogs down in the middle. After the set-up, there's a meandering plot about Yu's search for his lost father, the inventor of time travel. The meta-fictional Yu reflects at length on his dysfunctional family and rambles in circles about the physics of time travel. As short as this small novel is, it's a bad sign that it tended to drag due to a lack of real plot. At one point, deep in the middle, Yu mused, "But what if I were to skip forward? Just cut out all of this filler in the middle?" I found myself wondering the same thing.

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