By Timothy Yu
One of the most moving moments in Charles Yu’s debut collection, Third Class Superhero, comes from a grammatical distinction. In a story called “The Man Who Became Himself,” a man named David Howe has developed a strangely split consciousness. He eats breakfast with his wife, goes to work, feels angry or bored–yet at the same time he’s watching himself do these things, aware that he has somehow ceased to be the “David Howe” everyone assumes he is. He’s trapped in someone else’s life, a life that both is and is not his.
Yu compares his protagonist to a boy who has spent his whole life locked in a room, looking out a back window through which nothing happens. One day, though, another boy comes into the room–a boy who looks out the front window, where everything happens, and who is free to come and go as he pleases, to live life. The other boy, it seems, has been there all along:
This other boy was David Howe and they had lived in this cramped space within feet of each other for their entire lives, breathing the same air, hearing the same sounds, sleeping together under the low ceiling, and they had never spoken, never even noticed each other. It was as if he was in the first person and David Howe was in the third person and between them was an immense chasm of silence (47-8).
In the gap between the first person and the third, Yu is somehow able to find the ache of a lost childhood, the desperation of a life not lived, and the vertiginous terror of inhabiting a consciousness that is not one’s own. And he does so with an economy and elegance that puts my convoluted explanation to shame.
The astonishing power–and brilliant humor–of Yu’s writing comes from insights like this: language itself is a science-fictional universe, in which time machines are built not out of steel and silicon, but out of narrative. It’s an insight that reaches its full development in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, his novel of a time-machine repairman searching for his father in the interstitial space between stories. Yu follows a generation of younger writers–Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Junot DÃaz–who are infusing literary fiction with the tropes of genre fiction. But Yu inverts the formula, showing that literature has always been science fictional, in its time-warping ability to make the past present again and to offer us glimpses into alternate realities. The difference between science fiction and “reality,” the narrator of How to Live Safely tells us, “is one of degree, not nature.”
Science fiction is often about the extrapolation of theory–relativity, faster-than-light travel, genetic engineering. Charles Yu is one of the few science-fiction writers I can think of for whom the most important theory is literary theory. The time machines of How to Live Safely run on “state-of-the-art chronodiegetical technology,” with a “six-cylinder grammar drive” and “an applied temporalinguistics architecture allowing for free-form navigation with a rendered environment, such as, for instance, a story space and, in particular, a science fictional universe” (4). Language is a machine that allows us to occupy past, present, and future at the same time, because it has past, present, and future tenses. The narrator suspends himself in time by setting the gears of his machine to “Present-Indefinite,” hovering for a decade in a personalized pocket of time, isolated from the “real” world of chronology. The plausibility of this method of time travel is cemented through a metafictional move: characters in a book, after all, are travelers through this kind of “story space,” constructed in language, governed by diegetic forces that are, for them, just as irresistible as gravity. “A character within a story, or even a narrator,” Yu writes, “has, in general, no way of knowing whether or not he is in the past tense narration of a story, or is instead in the present tense…and merely reflecting upon the past” (33). The narrator himself is even named Charles Yu, blurring the line between author and text. There’s a Borgesian quality to Yu’s narrative, a sense of infinite regress and of an exhilarating loss of distinction between book and world.
But How to Live Safely is far from an academic exercise. What sets Yu’s work apart from many other metafictions is his ability to find deep emotional resonance in narrative self-consciousness. Being trapped in a moment that loops over and over again; struggling to return to or redeem our past experiences; confronting our past and future selves–what are these if not allegories of our inner lives? This is the source of the profound melancholy that haunts Yu’s book. When we all have the ability to travel through time (as we already do, through memory and literature), we do things like try to kill our own parents or revisit the unhappiest days of our lives. Yu’s Foundational Theory of Chronogenesis is that “memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine” (34).
For Yu, family is the prime locus of memory and regret, and this book, like much of his work, revolves around the “father-son axis.” The narrator’s father is the inventor of time travel, having worked out its principles through years of tinkering in his garage, isolated from his family. But the father didn’t want to use time travel to witness great historical events or to see the distant future. Instead, “he wanted to use it for sadness, to investigate the source of his own, his father’s, and on and on, to the ultimate origin, some dark radiating body” (48). To his son, the father becomes a remote, struggling figure of frustrated ambition, who ironically “spent all the time he had with us thinking about how he wished he had more time” (18). The narrator’s childhood home becomes a place of orbiting silences, as father, mother, and son withdraw into separate worlds. It’s a story that’s heartbreaking in its ordinariness, a story of any family, given new life through the metaphor of time travel.
But this is also not just any generic family. It’s an immigrant family, and that immigrant history inflects this science-fictional narrative in fascinating ways. The narrator’s parents came from “a faraway country, a part of reality, a tiny island in the ocean…where people still farmed with water buffalo and believed that stories, like life, were all straight lines of chronology” (70). The need for time travel, it seems, is a product of modernity, with its upheavals of tradition and its dissatisfaction with straight-line narratives. It may also be, however, that the immigrant experience provides the perspective that makes time traveling possible. The narrator is taught the basics of grammar by his mother, for whom English is a third language, after the “home language” of her island and the “mainland language taught in schools by the nationalists” (82). From his mother, the narrator “learned about the future tense, how anxiety is coded into our sentences, our conditionals, our thoughts, how worry is encoded into language itself, into grammar” (83). That consciousness of grammar, and of its emotional weight, is the time traveler’s crucial tool.
If Yu cleverly plays on the American trope of the entrepreneurial immigrant, he also shows how the immigrant is often blocked from the heights of achievement. In a particularly agonizing scene, the narrator remembers watching his father pitch his invention to a prominent scientist, a man of supreme self-assurance who is “giving off the impression of doing us a favor” (173). His father, in contrast, is a striver who “thinks success must be in direct proportion to effort exerted” (174), to whom “the world has always felt just out of his reach” (175). The narrator’s enduring image of the encounter is of his father “looking like an immigrant…a small man with a small hand in a large foreign country” (184).
I’m teaching How to Live Safely right now in a course on Asian Americans and science fiction. One theme of the course is the way Asia has been used to represent the future–as both promise and threat–in much American science fiction, from villains like Fu Manchu to the orientalized landscapes of Blade Runner and Neuromancer. One question we’ve been asking ourselves in response: what would an Asian American science fiction look like? How might it respond to this history of orientalist science fiction? How to Live Safely gives us a truly unexpected answer to this question. Yu gives us none of the trappings of cyberpunk–no picturesque dystopias, no virtual-reality fantasies, no heroes endowed with mysterious Asian powers. Instead, he shows us how a compelling science fiction narrative can be shaped around the immigrant story–around the story of a family whose frustrations and emotional struggles are all too familiar to Asian American readers. If there’s a link between Asian Americans and science fiction, Yu suggests that it’s not our exotic origins, but our real histories of migration, creativity, and loss that make our lives science fictional.
Oh, and did I happen to mention that Yu is one of the most dryly funny writers around? Yu’s relationship to the science-fiction tradition is a delightfully irreverent one, in which staples like alternate universes and alien species collide with the routines of contemporary corporatized life. The book takes place in “Minor Universe 31,” a defective realm in which “physics was only 93 percent installed” (11). It’s owned and operated by Time Warner Time, which hopes to convert it into a “sparkling new four-dimensional theme park” (66). It turns out, of course, that this “minor universe” is precisely the universe created by the book, in which “the reality portions…are concentrated in an inner core, with science fiction wrapped around it” (29). Where Yu’s fiction lives is on the “permeable boundary” between science fiction and reality, where our ordinary lives become time machines and immigrant stories form a bridge from past to future.
Timothy Yu is the author of Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965 (Stanford University Press). His poetry collection Journey to the West (Barrow Street) won the Vincent Chin Memorial Chapbook Prize from Kundiman. His poems and essays have appeared in Chicago Review, SHAMPOO, Another Chicago Magazine, and The Poetry Project Newsletter. He is an Associate Professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.