Friday, October 26, 2012

Book Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

About the story (3.5 of 5 clocks)

I read How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (hereafter How to Live) in e-book format, so I don't have the benefit of the various blurbs and synopses that accompany print books. But if this book's dust cover doesn't say something like the following, then someone wasn't paying attention:

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is about a time travel technician who, while searching for his father, finds himself instead — both metaphorically and literally.

So, yes, this is a story involving time travel, and it includes a moment when the traveler meets himself. But the time travel element is only a background, a vast, complex background that makes introspection a necessary part of life, if not a necessary evil.

Part The Old Man and the Sea, part Waiting for Godot, and part Slaughterhouse-Five, How to Live takes the reader through the time loop between the instant the protagonist sees himself step out of a time machine and, in a panic, shoots his future self and the instant that he steps off his time machine knowing that he will be shot by his past self. Within those infinite moments, the time traveler truly experiences free will, even while he hurtles toward a future he knows he cannot change.

How to Live is a character-driven novel in which the protagonist revisits his past relationship with his brilliant, depressed father (who abandoned his family and disappeared into some unknown niche of the space-time continuum) and tries to reconcile those memories with how he is living his own life.

Like The Old Man and the Sea, much of the conflict is internal, as the protagonist works through his self-loathing and indecision and searches for a perspective on his life and his relationship with his parents. He doesn't have sharks snacking on his catch, but he does have his upbeat manager Phil, who doesn't know that he's really just an old piece of software, as well as TAMMY, his neurotic computer interface who, he realizes perhaps too late, mirrors his own moods and shortcomings.

Being a primarily inner-looking story, there isn't a whole lot here for people craving action. But if you're looking for a story that reveals the painful joys and joyful pains of humanity, then this might be the novel for you.

About the writing and construction (4 of 5 clocks)

Considering that it's a novel involving time travel, events within the story don't necessarily occur in chronological order. Yu mirrors this type of nonlinear organization in the book itself. It starts with a nice bang:
When it happens, this is what happens: I shoot myself.

Not, you know, my self self. I shoot my future self. He steps out of a time machine, introduces himself as Charles Yu. What else am I supposed to do? I kill him. I kill my own future.
And then you come to the table of contents. Not the normal order of things, a nice little touch.

Yu doesn't stick to a single writing style, which makes the narrative more realistic. The protagonist has his moments of peace, of confusion, of anger, and of sadness, and the writing style reflects that. Sometimes the protagonist — and therefore the writing — is straightforward and businesslike, using simple sentences to state the facts. At other times, the sentences get long, weaving through multiple subjects in a believeable stream of consciousness.

When the sentences start to elongate, Yu sometimes lapses into lists that, with each new item, refine and narrow down the idea that he is trying to impart. For example,
I can see my younger self now, sniffing the air, just as Ed did, and I realize, finally, what that recurring scent was in my nostrils, the one I always associated with big moments in my life, with the oncoming arrival of something bad, of opportunity mishandled, of lost possibility. I thought it was the stinging odor of failure, like getting punched in the nose, the smell of adrenaline and then embarrassment, some biochemical reaction to learning, time and again, with my father, that the world didn't want our invention. (Chapter 21)

This is how real people think sometimes, and for that I applaud Mr. Yu, but at times this list mongering seems as much a crutch as an artistic expression of truth.

And then Mr. Yu does a little something weird at the end. After the climax and the falling action, after the story has come around full-circle, he presents an epilogue of sorts, though he names it an appendix. In this appendix, he switches to a first-person point of view, so that the time travelling protagonist is no longer someone we're reading about but is now us. Shifting from a description of one man's introspection into self-analysis, we become the one dealing with what we have learned.

It's a brilliant idea, though perhaps not brilliantly rendered. It would have been a more powerful ending if I had been able to identify with the protagonist more by the time we got to that point. Whether it was me or the writing, I just did not see much of myself in the protagonist.

I imagine that, among women readers, only the most imaginative and open-minded (or the most psychologically injured) would be able to make the connection with the protagonist that Mr. Yu hopes for.

In all, though, it was worth the read. There are moments of pure poetic beauty in the writing, like this from Chapter 13:
Worry was my mother's mechanic, the mechanism for engaging with the machinery of the living. Worry was an anchor for her, a hook, something to clutch on to in the world. Worry was a box to live inside of, worry a mechanism for evading the present, for re-creating the past, for dealing with the future.
So, no, the novel isn't perfect. It has its shortcomings, just like its protagonist, just like all human beings. It's better at some things than others, but aren't we all? It's harsh in some places, calm in others. It's quick-paced and slow-moving. It's good and bad.

It's a human book, written about a human for humans.