Monday, November 5, 2007

Third Class Superhero

Every once in a while you take a chance on a book with a great cover and it turns out to be a fabulous choice. Third Class Superhero is that kind of book, chock full of the kind of stories I love, stories that are not just well written, but have an innovative or experimental bent. In fact, the book reminds me of one of my favourite literary movements, the New Wave.

If you've never heard of it, the New Wave was a long-ago movement that consisted of fiction whose form or content defied logic. Though published in SF venues, New Wave writers sought to sever ties with traditional SF.

Two of the most powerful stories I've ever read came from that movement. They are "Descending" by Thomas Disch, and "The Heat Death of the Universe" by Pamela Zoline. The former describes an event that could never occur, thus placing it in the realm of fantasy or allegory, yet without the obvious trappings of either. The latter is a story that is fractured in such a way as to reflect the narrative, a housewife's nervous breakdown.

It is "The Heat Death of the Universe" that the stories of Third Class Superhero most resemble. They tend to be plotless and fragmented, sometimes with numbered or titled sections, and often with doses of scientific or pseudo-scientific blather. Despite the occasional SF paraphenalia, the author's interest remains with issues of identity and existence rather than cosmic adventure.

The titles of some of the stories give a clue to Charles Yu's intent: "Problem for Self-Study," "The Man Who Became Himself," "Man of Quiet Desperation Goes on Short Vacation."

Stories like these are not easy to write, for they can easily become boring and pretentious. Only the concluding story in the collection comes close to suffering this fate. For the rest, the author delivers wry humour, great ingenuity, and darn good writing.

"401(k)" features a couple trying to find meaning in an existence defined by the products they consume. "We don't need the Good Life. The Pretty Good Life would be just fine."

"My Last Days as Me" is about an actor in a family sitcom whose members are constantly being replaced. The story is full of wonderful lines. "Just to get things straight. Me is sixteen years old. I am twenty-two. I have been playing Me for as long as I can remember."

begins with the narrator's mother reading a book called Realism. The narrator asks, "What is a story in this kind of universe? What is character, what is plot?" A little later Yu performs a reverse Kafka by having an insect turn into a human being.

In "Florence" the narrator is trapped on a distant planet, alone and neurotic. His boss sends him messages, singing in the nude. A parcel arrives from his aunt Betty. Everyone is a recording.

Christians in the year A.D. 1,002,006 are few and far between. A lot of people don't even know what they are. Mainly because there are hardly any people left. Also, most of us stopped believing in God after black hole XR-97-ID got so massive it started swallowing itself over and over again in a recursive loop -- like some cosmic Escher print -- resulting in an object ten times the mass of the rest of the known universe. Personally, that did it for me.

"32.05864991%" refers to the statistical equivalent of the word "maybe," and the story itself is a crazy combination of probability, parallel universes, and the likelihood of a man and a woman making a connection through a telephone call.

"Two-Player Infinitely Iterated Simultaneous Semi-Cooperative Game with Spite and Reputation" begins by describing a game somewhat like The Sims, then morphs into something entirely different by offering a game cheat. Enter player 1's house, turn on the shower, and look into the mirror:

If you wait long enough, the game will give up and override its defaults. It will recognize your reflection in the mirror as a different player, Player 2. Now you are Player 1 and your reflection is Player 2. Now, say you are sorry.

The title story is the most conventional of the lot, featuring a superhero named Moisture Man, whose special power is the ability to condense moisture out of the air, which allows him to douse small fires and quench the thirst of his colleagues. A minor ability, to say the least. That's why he's stuck at being a third class superhero. After years of trying he's still unable to move up the ladder, and each year has to re-write a test to keep his superhero licence. This year he looks around and sizes up the other losers who are in there with him, writing the exam.

To my left is Itch-Inducer Boy. To my right is a pebble shooter. Over by the door are Malaise Man, The Fatiguer, and The Nauseator aka Slight Discomforto."

Charles Yu's intelligence, humour, and ability to craft great lines makes this one of the most entertaining short story collections I've come across in a long time.