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Saturday, February 5, 2011

How to Write About a Book You Could Not Understand

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
By Charles Yu
Pantheon, 2010

Minor Universe 31 is a vast story-space on the outskirts of fiction, where paradox fluctuates like the stock market, lonely sexbots beckon failed protagonists, and time travel is serious business. Every day, people get into time machines and try to do the one thing they should never do: change the past. That’s where Charles Yu, time travel technician-part counselor, part gadget repair man-steps in. He helps save people from themselves. Literally. When he’s not taking client calls or consoling his boss, Phil, who could really use an upgrade, Yu visits his mother (stuck in a one-hour cycle of time, she makes dinner over and over and over) and searches for his father, who invented time travel and then vanished. Accompanied by TAMMY, an operating system with low self-esteem, and Ed, a nonexistent but ontologically valid dog, Yu sets out, and back, and beyond, in order to find the one day where he and his father can meet in memory. He learns that the key may be found in a book he got from his future self. It’s called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and he’s the author. And somewhere inside it is the information that could help him – and, in fact, it may even save his life.

I did not write the above summary, but I assume it adequately explains the plot of the book that I read, actually finished, and did not understand one iota. Yes, it’s satirical and witty and experimental. Yes, it received rave reviews like, “a clever, fluently metaphorical tale,” and “a fascinating, philosophical and disorienting thriller about life.” Yes, it initially appealed to me in some weird way that I cannot fully explain. But it obviously went way over my head. I must have been designed to read and enjoy more pedestrian novels, like Jane Eyre or The Story of Edgar Sawtelle or a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Reader, you know I respect Library Journal and Kirkus, those pure examples of book review journals that usually provide revered and expert opinions on novels. Alas, I cannot for the life of me figure out how this book could get a starred (STARRED!) review, or how it could be considered a future cult classic (like A Wrinkle in Time?).

I couldn’t even understand the following, actually written for a review of this book: “The conclusion tries to mitigate character-Yu's risk-averse solipsism, but is too quick and abstract to really counter the rest of the book's emotional weight.”

All I can say is “huh?”

I guess I’m a lot dumber than I thought I was, or maybe I just like dumb books. In any event, I cannot in good conscience give this book any more than one cupcake and I really hate to waste one cupcake on it. Maybe I need to revise my rating bakery inventory.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other books you may enjoy and actually understand (or not):

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
Bill Lee, an addict-hustler, travels to Mexico and then Tangier in order to find easy access to drugs, and ends up in the Interpose, a bizarre fantasy world.

The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas
Discovering a copy of a mysterious book reputed to be unread by anyone presently alive, Ariel Manta finds herself transported into a wonderland where she can travel through time and space using the thoughts of others.

The Evolution Man, or How I Ate My Father by Roy Lewis
Containing an eyewitness account of the first human courtship ever, a study of the lives of an everyday, ordinary cave family includes portraits of Mom, the ape woman; brother William and his attempted animal domestication; and Dad, the inventor.

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