A playful experimentalist probes the limits of fiction in this debut collection.
The post-collegiate braininess of many of Yu’s stories is like the music of the Talking Heads, making the familiar seem off-kilter. Among his mathematically audacious fictional strategies, “Problems for Self-Study” casts itself as a series of algebraic equations that attempt to account for the inevitable arc of a marriage, and “32.05864991%” introduces the field of “emotional statistics” and the precision of probability indicated by the word “maybe.” There’s a reversal of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in “Realism,” a story suggesting that what’s commonly accepted as literary realism is unrealistic convention. “The Man Who Became Himself” also takes a Kafkaesque turn in its comic examination of the essence of identity, when a man starts thinking of himself as “he” rather than “I,” as if he is somehow inhabiting the body of another. The closing “Autobiographical Raw Material Unsuitable for the Mining of Fiction” may or may not be autobiographical, may or may not be fiction, and its narrator, “I,” who reads and writes stories, may or may not be the author. In one of the most metaphorically compelling stories here, “Florence” takes the form of science fiction, set a million years from now, when centuries pass in the blink of an eye, and each human exists isolated on his own planet, communicating across the void. The title story might well be the weakest, though the cover it inspires could appeal to the expanding readership for graphic novels, as Yu details the plight of “Moisture Man,” whose powers fail to make the superhero cut. Within these 11 stories, Yu uses language to suggest what language cannot express, as he deals with themes such as the nature of distance, the essence of time and the illusion of self for readers whose attention span has been conditioned more by video games than classic novels.
Smart, engaging and often deadpan funny.