Top Three: Charles Yu

November 5, 2011

We asked Charles Yu, author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Pantheon): What are the best stories of survival?

Out of My Skin

by John Haskell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

I read this novel as a story about psychological survival. The protagonist is a writer who has recently moved from New York to Los Angeles in order to write about movies. Instead, he becomes increasingly consumed with going through daily life while doing an impersonation of Steve Martin. This compact novel is meted out in short sections, which alternate between the main story and miniature essays on topics including playwrights, Hollywood filmmaking in the 1950s and, especially, actors. In a city where changing your identity can be your livelihood, where selves (always fluid and invisible) proliferate with each new role to play, how do you remember which one you are when you open your eyes in the morning? Or close your eyes in bed at night? Which one is the real self? Or does it even matter?

City of Glass

by Paul Auster (Penguin)

Paul Auster’s book opens with a narrator telling us about Quinn, a writer of detective stories who gets caught up in a mystery story, one that includes a man also named Paul Auster. The story is constructed, layer upon layer, as a kind of labyrinth, one which Quinn may never escape. If John Haskell’s novel is a story about psychological survival, then you might say City of Glass is a novel about metaphysical survival. What happens if you get lost in a story of your own creation? Can you get trapped in a maze that you yourself designed?

White Noise

by Don DeLillo (Penguin Classics)

DeLillo’s brilliant novel describes a family, a college, a town and a period in time. But more than anything, it evokes an atmospheric feeling: a particularly American variety of the universal fear of death, a variety which seems wound up in our feelings about technology, consumer desire, advertising, entertainment and, above all, television. As society becomes increasingly automated, mechanized, systematized, as our skies become awash with our waves and radiation, as our past radio transmissions move outward across the reaches of interstellar space, how can the significance of the individual (small, mortal, perishable) survive?

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