Her love for him is not something that can be changed— it’s physics, not emotion: It’s the exact weight of radium. It is vast and it is exact. It is tender and finite and inexhaustible. Her love for him is a fact. Her love for him is a brutal fact about the world.
In my ongoing tradition this year of reading lesser known books from my favorite authors, I read Charles Yu’s short story collection Third Class Superhero. I urge everyone to drop everything and read How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which broke my heart to bits, as well as his other short story collection Sorry Please Thank You. If you want to marvel at one of his short stories right now, have at it: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/30/fable-by-charles-yu Warning: You will need tissues and a puppy to cuddle afterwards, but it is so worth it.
As one might expect from a former science student turned writer, Yu’s plots are often high-concept: creating worlds where futuristic technologies govern society, where spaceships travel the cosmos, where you can rent a time machine, or communicate with your parallel universe selves. However, his stories are always rooted in the very concrete emotions and experiences of his protagonists, even among the sci fi trappings. They often focus on how even in such future environments, technology cannot fix your constant human emotions, flaws, and failed relationships and you will always be forced to confront and accept yourself as you are.
Third Class Superhero is no exception, although they generally take place in fewer sci fi enviroments than his later material. The most high-concept one is the titular story of a man with mediocre superpowers continually being rejected from his applications to become a superhero, as all of his former classmates succeed in their superdom. Most of the stories are instead written as if they are science problems or an experimental analysis in a research journal- even as they deal with such unscientific concepts as heartbreak, loneliness, and failure.
When uttered by a woman to a man, when such a man is capable of love but somewhat unclear in his idea of what love actually is and when such woman is perfectly aware of what love is, what it requires, and what it promises, and what it does not promise or fix or heal or even mean but despite or maybe because of such perfect awareness is incapable of allowing herself to be loved, “maybe” does not mean “probably” or “probably not” or anything vague or indeterminate. When “maybe” is used in this context, it means exactly 32.05864991%.
For example, “Problems for Self-Study” opens as one of the physics word problems everyone had to do in high school or college: “A is on a train traveling west at a constant velocity of x”, etc. However, the rest of the story goes on to describe his leaving his hometown, meeting his wife, and the way they grow apart over the years- all in the same style of a math problem, laying out their struggles as plain undisputed facts and asking the readers to calculate, based on the given parameters, where it all went wrong. “Autobiographical Raw Material Unsuitable for the Mining of Fiction” is written as if it was a scientist’s notebook, as he analyzes his attempts to write about his mother, and the various reasons why he always failed to understand her true self from his piles of “raw data” that he has gathered over their lives together.
Somehow by translating these complex emotional sensations and occurrences into plain indisputable mathematical/scientific facts, they becomes even more poignant. Yu’s writing has shades of Douglas Adams’ similar style, with the same wry sense of humor, but more melancholy and nostalgic.
I enjoyed Third Class Superhero quite a bit, even if it was not nearly as strong as How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe or Sorry Please Thank You. If anything in this review sounds appealing, I recommend starting with those first, and saving this for last.