September 30, 2010

BOOKS: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu (2010)

This lovely little novel starts off well enough, as a pleasantly smart-alecky story about a time-machine repairman (who also happens to be named Charles Yu); between clients (to the extent that "between" means anything when you live in a time machine), he travels from place/time to place/time searching for his missing father. There are, eventually, the obligatory time travel paradoxes, one of which involves the future Charles handing the present Charles a book and telling him that it contains all the answers. The book, of course, is Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

And if the book were just that, it would be an amusing diversion. But while you're not looking, the novel sneaks up on you and becomes a poignant, melancholy meditation on memory -- which is, after all, its own sort of time machine -- and its cousins, nostalgia and regret.

The writing is a joy to read, and often caught me off guard with the beauty of its insights. I love, for instance, this paragraph:

Hitting the peak of your life's trajectory is not the painful part. The painful day comes earlier, comes before things start going downhill, comes when things are still good, still pretty good, still just fine. It comes when you think you are still on your way up, but you can feel that the velocity isn't there anymore, the push behind you is gone, it's all inertia from here, it's all coasting, it's all momentum, and there will be more, there will be higher days, but for the first time, it's in sight. The top. The best day of your life. There it is. Not as high as you thought it was going to be, and earlier in your life, and also closer to where you are now, startling in its closeness. That there's a ceiling to this, there's a cap, there's a best-case scenario and you are living it right now. To see that look in your parents' faces at the dinner table at ten, and not recognize it, then to see it again at eighteen and recognize it as something to recognize, and then to see it at twenty-five and to recognize it for what it is.
This is a marvelous little jewel of a book.

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