Charles Yu read to a weird mixture of sci-fi fans and lovers of literary fiction at University Book Store last week. The confusion was understandable: Yu's debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, uses the vocabulary of a sci-fi nerdfest to explore the existential and psychological landscapes of literary fiction. It's a premise that could easily be way too precious—the protagonist of the book is named Charles Yu, and during the story he becomes, in a roundabout way, the author of a book called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe—but in practice, Yu keeps things squarely on the playful, Italo Calvino side of the fence.
The Yu in the novel is a time-travel technician whose job is to keep people from trying to change horrible events in their past. "What the customer wants," Yu says, "is to relive his very worst moment over and over and over again." Of course he winds up doing the very thing he is charged to prevent: Yu attempts to find his father, who disappeared a long time ago. Along the way, we get some delightful tweaks on sci-fi ideas—Yu manages to squeeze a lifetime into a month's worth of rent—and meditations on memory and loss.
The real Yu (or at least the Yu at the reading) was charmingly nervous. He photographed the audience in order to prove to his family that people came out see him read, and he answered nerdy questions about the genre research he did before writing Universe (he mainly sticks to Wheeler's interpretation of the quantum multiverse, but he admits playing "a little loose" with the rules for literary effect).
When a man in the audience asked Yu if the pistol he referred to in the novel is "Chekhov's gun," Yu is at first dumbfounded. "I guess it could be," he stammered. After the questioner clarified a bit—explaining Anton Chekhov's rule that if a gun is mentioned at the beginning of a story, it will have to be fired by the end—Yu laughed and shook his head. "I thought you were talking about Chekov from Star Trek," he said, relieved.
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While it's virtually impossible to review a poetry journal—the quality is always so variegated as to make a firm critical response nigh impossible—it must be said that the recently published third volume of Floating Bridge Review is something special. The local press has produced a book you can leave floating around your house, occasionally picking it up and choosing a poem to read at random. (George Such on why teachers are like betel nut pan: "Relish the stimulation./Take in the flavors, let them permeate your mouth,/even stain your teeth if you like—/but don't swallow the juice.") It's like having a squadron of clever poets hanging out in your living room, without all the necessary carpet-cleaning fees afterward.