December 4: “Standard Loneliness Package” by Charles Yu

Hello there, Story366! Today is Sunday, most importantly meaning that tonight is the night I watch Westworld, and tonight’s Westworld is especially notable because it’s the first season finale. If you follow twenty-first-century serialized TV, you know that these shows aren’t made for twenty-five-episode, eight-month schedules any more, not like watching The A-Team or even Law & OrderWestworld‘s season is ten episodes long, like a lot of premium cable show (Game of Thrones, e.g.), the stories meant to both make a viewer’s life drag in the six days and twenty-three hours between episodes, but at the same time, serve as prime fodder for binging. Westworld is the latest show that’s captures a lot of viewers’ imaginations, become an obsession, complete with summary/theory videos, Reddit threads, and speculation that has leaked into talk shows, radio programs, and water-cooler breakdowns. I love it.

I got into Game of Thrones in Season 3—I’d actually watched the first two episodes, but then we moved from Ohio to Missouri and I lost track—and immediately became obsessed, going back and watching all the episodes I’d missed within a single week, watching all the DVD bonus material (up on YouTube), and by the next episode, was an absolute expert on the show (sadly, this turned me off of the books, which I tried to read but couldn’t get into, as I already knew too much—read the books first!). I eagerly await the next season of Game of Thrones, but that’s not until June or July, and by then, I’ll be so engaged in the Cubs that dragons and swordplay and unabashed nudity can wait.

As soon as I saw the previews for Westworld I knew that this would be the show that held me over until next season. I’d seen the Michael Crichton movie from the early seventies, the one where Yul Brenner in a black hat walks around a theme park, a robot built for white-hatted guests to shoot dead in the street at high noon. Something in Brenner’s programming malfunctions, however and he starts killing guests for real, chasing James Brolin and Richard Benjamin around the fake desert. I knew that HBO, if they were going to remake a concept like this, was going to go all-out, that the original germ of Crichton’s idea (which was the germ for Jurassic Park, a theme park’s attractions turning on and murdering its guests) would only be the start of what they would do, that it would, with the people involved—Jonathan Nolan, Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, etc.—transcend the original.

And I was right. I love this show as much as any show I’ve watched, including Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, two of the greatest dramas ever. The first episode hooked me and then I was already in full-out can’t-wait-until-next-week mode. Theory videos started popping up on YouTube as to what was going on and the creators kept delivering. I’m not going to talk about the show specifically here, as that’s not what this blog is for—there’s plenty on the World Wide Web if you’re interested. But tonight is the season finale and it’s going to be awesome and I can’t wait and that’s why I’m doing this post so early and why am I talking to you people again?

I did choose today’s author and book especially for today, though, as Charles Yu works on Westworld as a Story Editor and as the main writer for a couple of the episodes. I first came across Yu’s work when he won Mid-American Review‘s Sherwood Anderson Short Fiction Award over a decade ago now. That winning story became the title story of his first collection, Third-Class Superhero (though the story was originally titled “Class Three Superhero) and Yu came to visit BG soon after as a guest for our Winter Wheat festival. Yu went on to publish and highly regarded and bestselling novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, following that up with the subject of today’s post, Sorry Please Thank You: Stories, out from Pantheon. I’d read a few stories from this collection before and read a few more today and am going to write about the first story in the book, “Standard Loneliness Package.”

“Standard Loneliness Package” is about this guy who works in a call center in India, complete with cubicles and general ennui, only these folks aren’t answering customer service questions or helping you clean 7-up out of your keyboard. Instead, it’s their job—at twelve bucks an hour—to assume pain for their callers. If someone calls and wants their grief removed from the day of a loved one’s funeral, they pay so much money, a technician like our protagonist gets the ticket, and through some data-transferrence process, the tech takes on that grief during the funeral, leaving the client completely calm and happy. It works for physical pain, too—dentist visits are common—ranging all the way up to major operations and injuries, death of close family members. Sometimes there’s minor emotions like guilt and anxiety, which are easier tickets. It’s kind of like the sin eater concept that I talked about on the day I did Tara Masih’s book, only more technical, and dealing with emotions. All in all, it’s a pretty clever idea for a story, one whose world-building is as enjoyable as any other element of the story.

Of course there’s more, as our protagonist is a human and this job, as you might imagine, takes its toll. I feel anxious when I have a department meeting I don’t necessarily want to sit through in the late afternoon. Imagine walking into work and for a dozen dollars an hour, you have to feel the personal pain of three broken legs, eight funerals, and telling your newlywed husband that you’ve already been cheating on him? Hard to get out of bed for that day, let along every day like that, but that’s what this world is, what Yu has created.

Because Yu is so darned talented, he really expands this story—over thirty pages long—to cover all the bases, to get into the deepest, darkest nooks of his concept. The one ticket that this company won’t take on is the death of a client’s child, the grief too cataclysmic that this company, which could normally care less about its employees, won’t inflict, no matter what the price, on its employees. There’s also a subplot involving the narrator’s friend and colleague, Deep, who theorizes that the system could be used as an alibi in major crimes, the client having no memory or emotion involving horrible things that they’ve done. Any question about this system I might have had, and then some, Yu answers.

Of course, a man who experiences the constant pain and emotion of others has to have something in his own life to live for, to suffer through, and Yu installs that in the form of another relationship, this a romance of sorts with another coworker, Kirthi. How do people who do this for a living find love, experience joy, connect with each other? Yu answers those questions, too, as the Kirthi storyline eventually takes over as the main arc of the story.

I won’t reveal anything else about “Standard Loneliness Package,” which still has a lot to unearth—you should read this story, as it’s fabulous. It does remind me a bit of that Yu story I published in MAR, “Class Three Superhero,” as that story, too, turns something that’s not a business—heroing—into a corporation of sorts, talking about the ins and outs of being a super hero, how logistics are managed, how the smallest gear in the machine helps to make the entire construct spin. You could see why HBO producers would peg Yu as to come in for a show like Westworld, a show the depicts this strange business, its remarkable conceit, its inner workings, how all of it affects its inhabitants both physically and emotionally. Yu did his legwork and his reward is creating something for a large audience, on a much grander scale. Really, its more our reward than his.

I’ve loved everything that Charles Yu has done, in no matter what format, and am glad I revisited this collection, Sorry Please Thank You, just about finishing, which maybe I’ll do here in a bit. Still gotta pass eight more hours until the show comes on tonight. And while I have grading, family, domestic chores, and getting those Christmas lights up (raining and cold again today … ugh), I’m not sure I can make it. Stay tuned.