Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Postmodern Selfhelp

Two dazzling but very different forays into metafiction, yet with curious similarities. In each the protagonist is searching for his father, and in one he is also searching for his son.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is the name of a self-referential manual that the protagonist writes in the future and gives to himself in the past. It is "a copy of a copy of a copy" containing excerpts from itself, such as:

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How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive takes its title from a 1969 repair manual of the same name. It uses actual chapter titles from the original manual. More recursion appears in the chapter subheads, one of which is always the chapter title.

Metafictional Transport

The protagonists tool around in vehicles seemingly worlds apart, a time machine and a 1971 Volkswagen. Both however are based on similar concepts.

The TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device is powered by a six-cylinder grammar drive with temporalinguistics architecture. It navigates within "a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe." "Running out of fuel" is another way of saying "we're running out of book."

The Volkswagen runs on stories which can either be read to it or scanned in, and its mechanical components include a narrapedal, storypump, pagewheel, scene clutch, and engineheart. Its wordoil has to be changed every 50 pages.

Strange Characters

The author and protagonist of How to Live share the same name: Charles Yu. The author of How to Keep is Anthony Boucher, whose protagonist has pawned his name and has to go by __________. All he can remember about it is that it's French Canadian.

The vehicles are also characters with whom the protagonists have a relationship. The Volkswagen is __________'s son, while the time machine has an operating system named TAMMY whom Yu flirts with. The paradoxical nature of these vehicles is evidenced by __________ being able to climb into the Volkswagen (his son) and drive it around, while Yu shoots/gets shot by himself when he exits/sees himself exiting the time machine.

Two of __________'s girlfriends are the Lady from the Land of the Beans, and the Lady Made Entirely of Stained Glass. His friend is a Chest of Drawers and his boss a cheese named Louise. The police are dogs.

Two of the characters in the other book are named the Woman I Never Married and the Woman My Mother Should Have Been. Yu's boss Phil is married to a spreadsheet program. He has a dog named Ed, "a weird ontological entity" who "doesn't even know he doesn't exist."


Both books have a terrific sense of playfulness.

How to Live:

Had a one-night stand with something cute a couple of years ago. Not human exactly. Humanish. Close enough that she looked awesome with her shirt off. We hung out a few times, tried messing around but in the end I couldn't figure out her anatomy, or perhaps it was the other way around. There were some awkward moments. I think she had a good time anyway. I did. She was a good kisser. I just hope that was her mouth.

How to Keep:

Step 6. Open the sufferoil and pour it in. Don't touch it or contaminate it in any way. And again, make sure that it is good oil. Good sufferoil will be fine, almost cocky, when you pour it in. You want it to be saying things like, "No sweat" or "Fuck it--this is no problem." If it's hedging (talking about a loved one, asking questions like, "Are you sure this is a good idea?") don't use it.

Get Serious

But it's not all fun and games. The books also have a serious side.

How to Live:

At some point in your life this statement will be true: Tomorrow you will lose everything forever.

And in How to Keep, __________ is a single parent. Before she left, the VW's mom would...

...stay in bed until one or two in the afternoon, completely unresponsive. Even before she was gone, she was gone.


The original version of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.

Third Class Superhero is a great short story collection Charles Yu.

Calvin and Hobbes time travel machine.