In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Charles Yu to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Lightspeed, “Standard Loneliness Package.”
What made you decide to set this story in this particular country? India, is it?
Yes, that’s right. By placing the story in India, I was hoping to do two things. First, I wanted to evoke a near-future, fairly plausible world, which I hoped would heighten the emotional realism of what is, admittedly, a not-very-plausible premise. The other idea I had was that by setting it in India, which is, of course, a major outsourcing center in our real world, the story might be able to explore some of the socio-economic and psychological consequences of exporting our crappiest jobs to people on the other side of the world, to wonder a little bit about the limits of outsourcing.
Our narrator claims that his job is a good one, yet I can’t help but wonder if he’s trying to convince himself of that. Why go through this emotional torment, day after day? Is it just another job for him, or do you think his loneliness is a subconscious factor in why he’s remained there? To feel more, consistently? A way of connection?
I think it’s both: his job is a good one, and yet at the same time, he also has to remind himself of that, because it’s grueling, punishing work. That’s how rough his life is, how impoverished he is, that he, on one level, knows he is lucky to have this job, which is literally filled with pain and misery that other people don’t want to feel. This sort of goes back to the first question, and the issue of what outsourcing is. It’s a completely rational transaction from an economic standpoint. At the same time, what you’re talking about is substituting one person’s blood, sweat, tears, time and suffering for another person’s blood, sweat, tears, time and suffering. It’s interesting what you’re saying about whether subconsciously he might be drawn to the job, as excruciating as it is, because of some kind of connection or even vitality he might find in the felt experience of other people’s minds and hearts. I honestly hadn’t thought of that; in my mind, I assumed he didn’t have much of a choice, practically speaking. But I like your reading better!
Some people argue that feeling emotion is what makes us human. If these emotional depths & experiences are taken away from us, what kinds of side effects do you think that could have?
If something like emotional transference technology were ever possible, I’d be terrified, as much for the people who could afford to outsource their pain as for people to whom it would be outsourced. I think life would be pretty empty without any bad parts, but I’m probably also a totally insensitive jerk, because “bad parts” is obviously a relative term, and for people like me (and probably most people reading this, on a computer, living in the first world), the “bad parts” of life are probably laughably trivial to large parts of the world, where clean water and getting enough calories to survive are not givens.
Having said all that, I do think that in a lot of ways, large and small (including modern conveniences, entertainments, modes of communications, and yes, outsourcing), we have already had some of our emotional depths and experiences taken away. I don’t mean to suggest that’s a brand new phenomenon; with each major technology, we have some new kinds of experiences, but some others taken away, right?
One has the ability to mortgage out his or her life in this story-a new take on the phrase “time is money.” Where did you get this idea from?
When I heard a term like, 30-year-fixed mortgage, or when I think about life insurance, annuities, even things like an employee 401(k) plan, what really strikes me is that, in a sense, we’re talking about a calculus that involves two variables: chunks of your life and money. And those variables are put together into projections, into formulae, into estimates of what you’ll need to be happy, someday, to be comfortable, working for wages and pension contributions, putting money into financial instruments is really about trading part of your present for your future. I wanted to make this equivalence, this commensurability between time and money as concrete as possible, and it struck me that the simplest way to do that was to imagine a world where it was literally possible to trade time for money.
Our narrator doesn’t express much emotion regarding the loss of his father, but we can read between the lines that he felt it keenly. How do you think it influenced him both growing up and in the present day?
As you pointed out earlier, I think he’s an incredibly lonely person, someone for whom basic connection is not easy. This story definitely would have been different if the narrator was an outgoing guy with a bunch of friends!
Kirthi is a relief and true joy for our narrator, in the middle of what he calls a life of “pure, undiluted badness.” But she has her own issues to go through, and they split up. Do you think her presence in his life changes him permanently? For the better or worse?
I think for the better, although that’s not to say I imagine a happy life for him or for her. But one in which the possibility of connection now seems possible, thanks to Kirthi. And that’s about as hopeful a place I think he could have gotten to, in the course of this short story.