I've waited for a novel from Charles Yu with eager anticipation since being bowled over by his 2006 short story collection, Third Class Superhero. These tales, reminiscent of Donald Barthelme and early Jonathan Lethem, mixed mundane questions about larger-than-life topics (what would happen if you were a merely mediocre superhero?) in wondrous ways and got a cult audience excited about what it means to be living on this earth right now—and what it means to be slightly apart from it.
“Time machine repair men are important, just like finance people. The Death Star needs accountants, too, and an HR department."
Four long years later, the 34-year-old Yu's first novel is getting ready for lift-off, and it more than surpasses expectations which couldn’t be any higher after he was given the " 5 under 35" award by the National Book Foundation. How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe, forthcoming from Pantheon in September, is one of the trippiest and most thoughtful novels I've read all year, one that begs for a single sit-down experience even if you're left with a major head rush after the fact for having gulped down so many ideas in a solitary swoop.
Yu doesn't shy away from asking tough existential questions—is it possible to kill your own future? What does it mean to be trapped in a time loop? Can you occupy the same space in several universes?—and sparks all sorts of brain explosions in the reader with schematic diagrams, fragmented, occasionally perpendicular narratives, and humorous bullet point lists. But Yu's literary pyrotechnics come in a marvellously entertaining and accessible package, featuring a reluctant, time machine-operating hero on a continual quest to discover what really happened to his missing father, a mysterious book possibly answering all, and a computer with the most idiosyncratic personality since HAL or Deep Thought (and certainly the most memorable neuroses, including a crippling case of low self-esteem that creates boot-up havoc.)
Not surprisingly, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe was written in a non-linear fashion. "If I were to describe the geometry of the book's construction, I guess I would say it was built from the inside out, in concentric rectangles, if that makes any sense," Yu told me in a recent e-mail interview. "I started with the idea that here's this guy, he's in a box. This box he's in is a vehicle of some sort. He's moving through space in his vehicle. But wait, it's not just space. It's time. Okay, he's in a box moving through time, but now, hold up, there's a problem, and I think this is a general issue in trying to create a time travel story, as in, what are the constraints? Because you have to have constraints in a time travel story, and probably a lot of them, otherwise there are going to be way too many degrees of freedom."
Meanwhile, Yu was also conjuring up scenes of a family's life together, knowing these father-son and mother-son scenes were connected to the time-travel narrative, but unsure of the specifics. "One on side of the conceptual space, I have the time travel, and on the other side are these scenes, and the little a-ha moment—which, in retrospect, should have been obvious to me all along—is realizing, hey, this guy in the little box flying around through time, he should be moving through these memories. And that became the basic terrain of the book, this Charles Yu guy in his time machine, in this minor universe, floating around through these nebulae, these clouds of memories. The space he's moving through is a memory-space."
Yes, Charles Yu names his main character after himself. That main character, in fact, is both time-machine repairman and author of a book called "How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe." But this not-so-new trick doesn't grate or come off as cloying, instead a natural extension of Yu's sly examination of multiple selves and existential conundrums ("I'm in the self-consciousness industry," the protagonist says early on.)
It also helps that "Charles Yu" ambles into his profession without a real sense of purpose. "No one grows up wanting to be the time-machine repair guy," says the character, but the author thinks his sort-of-alter was always meant for the job and just didn't know it. "He's not good with a gun, he's not the swashbuckling space opera hero. But he has given a lot of thought to the subject of time, about what it means to move through it. And that's important, too, these back office jobs in the universe. Time machine repair men are important, just like finance people. The Death Star needs accountants, too, and an HR department."
Like the work of Richard Powers, who nominated Yu for the "5 under 35" award, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe fuses the scientific and the emotional in ways that bring about something new. Was it a struggle to make sure there's emotional resonance in his writing? Yu said it comes from both sides of the equation. "On one side, you have the emotional core of a story, a person in a not-so-good situation, a person going through a change (or resisting a change). On the other side you're trying to make it strange, trying to break yourself out of habitual patterns of words, clumps of words that have been used before, and not just clumps of words, but habitual clumps of thinking. What I'm really trying to do is find a lens, or a filter or a language, some kind of voice distortion box that when I talk through it, it sounds cool, it sounds different."
The fragmented narratives of Yu's work may also stem his day to day life, as he practices law for a Southern California law firm and is married with two young children, "I look back fondly on the days when all I had to do was work full-time," he joked. "With the first kid, sleep was destroyed, with the second kid, any kind of personal space or time was destroyed." But as it turns out, the lack of sleep makes it easier for Yu to write of strange loops and deep thoughts. "I used to like to have a minimum of 2 or even 3-4 hours, in the early morning or in evening or on the weekend, and a quiet place," he explained. "I've learned to just take the time when I can, even if it's just 20 or 30 minutes, here or there, after everyone's asleep."
Sarah Weinman contributes to the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Post and many other print and online publications, and blogs about books and the publishing industry at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.