“Fable”
by Charles Yu
Originally published in the May 30, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker website.

May 30, 2016I have never heard of Charles Yu before — this is his first story in The New Yorker — but he has been publishing stories for over a decade. In 2004 he received the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award for a story called “Third Class Superhero.” He has published two story collections, Third Class Superhero and Sorry Please Thank You, and one novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

I’m excited to get to know this new-to-me author through “Fable,” a story in which, according to Yu’s interview with Deborah Treisman (here), “a man is asked by his therapist to tell the story of his life as a kind of fairy tale.”

Please feel free to leave any thoughts you have below. I’d love to hear if any of you have enjoy Yu’s prior work.

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By |2016-05-23T14:22:42+00:00May 23rd, 2016|Categories: Charles Yu, New Yorker Fiction|17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Lee Monks May 23, 2016 at 5:38 pm

    I’ve read Yu’s novel, very enjoyable, basically about a father-son relationship. The premise here doesn’t look promising, but Yu made a daft premise work very well in the aforementioned novel.

  2. queenofthepark May 23, 2016 at 10:42 pm

    Fresh, engaging story listened to on morning park walk. Great selection.

  3. Trevor Berrett May 24, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    I’m afraid I did not care for this one on the whole, though I kept wanting to and ultimately felt it had some good moments and bad moments, the good not entirely cancelling out the bad.

    I found the first little section, where promising because it suggested the whole piece was not going to be the fable itself (as much as I like them, fairy tales and fables about modern life are getting a bit tiresome) but rather an exploration of the man’s therapy itself.

    Once upond a time, there was a man whose therapist thought it would be a good idea for the man to work through some stuff by telling a story about that stuff.

    The man lived in a one-bedroom efficiency cottage all by himself, in a sort of dicey part of town. One day, the man woke up and realized that this was pretty much it for him. It wasn’t terrible. But it wasn’t great, either. And not likely to improve. The man was smart enough to realize this, yet not quite smart enough to do anything about it. He lived out the rest of his days and eventually died. The end. Happy now?

    The man could see that his therapist was not amused.

    However, the piece essentially did become what I feared: a fable about this man’s life, forgetting at times that the man was resistant, and then throwing it back in there.

    I particularly disliked the ending, which left a bad taste in my mouth. I found it trite and preachy. Fables are moralizing, sure, but usually not quite so facile.

  4. Patricia May 24, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    I agree with you, Trevor, about the ending. I groaned when I came to the “it’s a start.” Ugh.

    I wish the therapist had been left out of all but the opening line. I did like the fable format, and in parts it was very appropriate, I think because Yu was writing about a child and the narrator’s child-like wife. To me, when the fable fell apart it was because therapy/real life stuck its nose in the story and ruined things. But maybe that was intentional, all the starts and stops, to give the impression of the forward and backward movement of therapy. I don’t know–am I giving Yu too much credit here?

  5. Trevor Berrett May 24, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    I think you’re right, Patricia, that the start and stops represented the narrator’s own starts and stops. We seem to be on different ends as to whether that was good or bad, though, as that’s what I liked and that’s what I felt should have been a stronger presence — ha! I wanted to fable to fall apart more often than it did, partially because I didn’t believe that the man, who was obviously resistant, would go on for such long stretches. I suppose I wanted more of a breakdown that led to his longer stretches.

  6. Wilson May 26, 2016 at 7:50 am

    Because we bring our own context to what we read, and because I have a very close friend with a special needs child, I found myself lumpy-throated at times and caught up emotionally (much more so than intellectually) in this story. As such, it was quite effective in conveying a kind of bleak hope that sustains, but not too much. As for the story’s pace and structure, the stream-of-consciousness back and forth between fable and reality, I thought the approach worked to convey the man’s confusion, anger, desperation. An enjoyable read.

  7. Peggy May 29, 2016 at 12:22 am

    I groaned at the word fable,” but the setting in a psychiatrist’s office, progressing through the process of analysis and then my getting caught up with the facts of the man’s life held my attention. The end was disappointing, a bit shallow as well as sudden – perhaps because the ending swerved away from promising the characteristics of fiction (character, plot etc.) to make me think about psychiatry. Was the point of the story to indict the profession which can elicit insight, but no solution? Will psychiatrists be inspired to use this technique? That being said – this story will stay in my mind.

  8. Ken May 31, 2016 at 3:04 pm

    I’m with Peggy. I liked the story itself and was getting interested and then we’d go back to the therapists. I also thought the ending was a cop-out. This type of open-ending is a worse cliche than any sort of pat denouement.

  9. Greg May 31, 2016 at 9:15 pm

    I’m with Wilson. Very powerful emotionally. This was my favourite part:

    “…and he knew that he would wipe the boy’s nose and ass and anything else for as long as he needed to, because that’s what blacksmiths do. That’s what fairy-tale heroes do. They become government lawyers. They buy groceries. They shave their son three times a week, and feed him pudding, and sing to him once in a while.”

  10. Auden L. Grumet, Esq. June 10, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    As the son of a psychiatrist and partner of a therapist (and lawyer myself:), I think I’m qualified to opine that there is generally a substantial difference between psychiatry/psychiatrists as we know it/them today and therapy/therapists. The former almost never engage in therapy (esp psychoanalysis). So I wouldn’t associate this contemporary story or therapy with modern psychiatry.

    In any event, I agree with many of the comments about the time devoted to the fable aspect being excessive, and the conclusion being anticlimactic. But overall it was nevertheless satisfying.

    I’ve intentionally withheld from researching, but Yu strikes me as a single, or at least childless, man. So if my hunch is correct, it’s an interesting focus – the family. I sensed that the burdens of bureaurocrasy and existence (Existentialism) did or should have trumped that of the “child raising challenges”. Perhaps he and his partner – if he has one – tried to conceive later in life, and he (Yu) had anxiety about it.

    I did see that he was/is a lawyer (once a lawyer always a lawyer:), and I can relate with the Kafkaesque frustrations of firm life and the system/state.

    Obviously a lot of anxiety going on here…

  11. William Check June 11, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    As I wrote a few posts earlier (in a comment on “Choking Victim”), one of the solutions to the FWP problem is to use unconventional storytelling, as George Saunders and Ben Lerner do. (Steven Millhauser as well, though of a different type). Here we see Charles Yu using a hybrid of storytelling techniques to make the familiar startling. I don’t mean to say that having an autistic child is a common occurrence (though statistically it seems to be more common than it used to be). Rather, this situation feels somewhat familiar to us because it has been written about by parents of autistic children as well as by autistic people themselves.

    How to dramatize this heartwrenching dilemma in fiction, how to portray the personal anguish of it? What Yu does is to put his protagonist in a therapy session and have him tell his “fable”. Two features of this strategy wake us up.

    First, Yu combines an old-fashioned fabulist once-upon-a-time narrative tone with periodic infusions of stark realism. Second, the narrative stops and starts, and each time it resumes the teller has a different view of his context. These stops and starts are an important narrative device, since they show the progress that the protagonist is making in breaking down his resistance to acknowledging the truth of his meager relationship with his son. As the “fable” evolves, he becomes more aware of how he has blocked himself from engaging his son in a true and honest way. He sees that he has put a wall between his feelings about his son, which are sad and warm and caring and tender, and the expression of those feelings, because he is afraid to experience the pain of his disappointment. He has told himself a story about how his son came to be and what he represents – “a fable” — rather than fully encountering him as a person. Most recently, he gave up completely, forsaking any story, withdrawing from his family. In the last section he sees that he has stranded himself and his son in a wilderness where they stand on opposite sides of a “ruined bridge”.

    (One commenter on this site wrote,: “But maybe that was intentional, all the starts and stops, to give the impression of the forward and backward movement of therapy. I don’t know–am I giving Yu too much credit here?” Such a salubrious feature of writing doesn’t happen by chance.)

    What Yu is doing here is embodying a view of identity that posits that people can to some degree alter their perception of themselves and their circumstances by how they tell themselves the story of their life. To learn more you can google “narrative psychology”. Also one of its proponents, Dan McAdams. Basically Yu is conflating such terms as “story”, “fable”, “narrative” and “tale” to present the life and feelings of one person in a very difficult situation. Yu is perhaps more open to this approach since he comes from a background of writing what’s sometimes termed “speculative fiction”. Also because he doesn’t have a creative writing degree. You can learn more about him in this interview, which took place a few years ago on the publication of his book of short stories:

    http://www.themorningnews.org/article/charles-yu

    (BTW, Yu is married with 2 children.)

    Interestingly, both Saunders and Lerner are cited in the interview.

    [Interviewer]: You have been mentioned with George Saunders, which I think is apt. The similarity I see is that there is a high specific gravity to your stories, a richness—some story collections I can read in one or two sittings. In your case I can only read, at most two stories at a time—I don’t think I have finished with them even after I have read them.

    I certainly feel that way about “Fable”.

    Here is another pertinent exchange:

    [Interviewer]: Usually there is one character working through something, some dilemma, some—not a problem but some given.
    CY: Yes, and usually some distance from where they want to be, some longing. And they might or might not be traveling toward that.

    Another:

    [Interviewer]: What fiction have you read?
    CY: Recently? I really, really enjoyed Ben Lerner’s novel.
    RB: Leaving the Atocha Station.
    CY: The interiority of it was impressive.

    Some people writing on this site had a problem with the therapist, as a device or as intrusive. I don’t think she was intrusive. She created inflection points in the protagonist’s psychological journey, as he tested sequential versions of his life story. She was the voice of honesty, never letting him get away with lying to himself. At the same time, she was more than a device, she was a real person, displaying a typical contemporary nondirective Rogerian approach.

    Other people disliked the ending, saying it was an open-ended cliché or anticlimactic. To me, this was the best possible type of ending. It was full of feeling and meaningful without being unrealistic. The man thinks:

    “This was not a dream, a fairy tale. This was all there was, all there would be.”

    He has come to a realization, but not to a “cure”. As the therapist says, “”It’s a start.” The man wants more than this, maybe he wants “happily ever after”. But that’s not what one gets from therapy. Yu writes:

    “And then the man says to himself, All right, maybe she’s right. If this is where your story starts, then so be it.”

    He’s going to continue on his journey, but in a new spirit. What ending can you imagine that would be better?

  12. mehbe June 13, 2016 at 4:19 am

    William Check, I enjoyed the story as a whole, but am another who thought the ending was not satisfying. For me, it’s simply the abrupt throwaway tone of “It’s a start.” It just felt rather cheap and maybe even flippant. And it contained a weird mercenary vibe, too, of the counselor thinking about making more money from this guy, by suggesting there would be more sessions.

    But I am not the one to imagine a better ending, since I am not a writer of stories.

  13. William June 13, 2016 at 10:11 pm

    Boy, I really don’t see the narrator’s saying “It’s a start” as flippant. He has literally sweated his way to this place. It seems to me to be a hard-won realistic assessment of where he is, and (implicitly) an intention to move on.,

    As for the therapist, I don’t see her as being mercenary. I don’t even think she’s even assuming that the narrator will return Here is what the story says:

    “On his way out the door, he said, See you next week, and the therapist said, Maybe. He turned to look at her. [I think he’s startled by her remark.] She said, Let’s see where you go from here.”

  14. Greg June 15, 2016 at 10:43 pm

    I agree with you wholeheartedly William on the ending.

    And thank you for your earlier extended post – I learned so much. My favourite part was on Narrative Psychology!

  15. David June 17, 2016 at 12:05 pm

    I wasn’t sure if I wanted to comment on this story because its been out for a while now and the traffic here seems low, so maybe no one will read this, but what the heck.

    I had never heard of Charles Yu before reading this story, but I loved it from start to finish. I have read all of the New Yorker short stories this year and it is in my top 4 of 2016 so far. I am a sucker for what some people call a good “gimmick” (I just refer to them as an “original idea”) and I loved seeing how it played out. Through the fable structure and the man’s reluctance to share his story you get a slowly building sense of why he is troubled, but the fable nicely obscures being entirely clear on the details which allows us to focus on the more important point that he is a man dealing with a lot of pain.

    Trevor, you wrote that “fables about modern life are getting a bit tiresome”, but I must admit that this is not a motif I am all that familiar with (I can’t even think of another recent example off the top of my head), so for me it was not tired but quite fresh. Having said that, I still would not have enjoyed the story so much if he had not done something interesting with the telling of this story beyond that set up.

    Earlier this week I finished reading Yu’s short story collection called “Sorry Please Thank You” and thought it was equally great. His other work involves more humour and more science fiction than this one, but this story would not have been out of place in that collection. I have his novel now, too, but have not started reading it. If “Fable” is any indication, I expect it to be thoroughly enjoyable as well.
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    There. Finished. Is anyone reading this or did I just write it for myself? And why do I suddenly feel like the main character of “Fable”?

  16. Trevor Berrett June 17, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    I’m reading, David!

    You asked about other fables about modern life, and I may be conflating a few things when I use that term. While not often structured as a fable, as Yu’s story is, I think of Karen Russell and George Saunders who often mix in fairy tale, fable, or horror tropes to examine the modern world. But perhaps more on the nose is the recent work of Robert Coover, with “The Frog Prince” the immediate standout. I do tend to like aspects of these stories, and I wanted to like Yu’s much more (the ending really reworked the goodwill I had built up to that point), but I’m not getting the same “freshness” from the concept as I once did. I think more than any fault of the authors, though, is my own inability to slow down my apparent grumpiness as I age!

    Personal grumpiness aside, though, I’m thrilled you have found an author to follow! I love it when that happens, and I’d love to hear what you’re enjoying as you explore his work!

  17. William June 21, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    Greg —

    Thanks for those kind words.

    David —

    I’m reading, too. Glad you brought up the issue of what Trever was referring to. I agree that Yu fits with Saunders (who got into the afterlife in Mother’s Day but in a very trailer park kind of way) and Coover (whose 1-page stories are quite powerful). I’d add Steven Millhauser and Donald Barthelme. In this discussion I was reminded of A.S. Byatt, who published a book of modern fairy tales — The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (1994) — that I enjoyed a lot. I was brought to them by her story The Stone Woman. which was published in the New Yorker (they do get into the discomfort zone once in a while, just not often enough). Byatt’s djinn story was about a contemporary female English professor at a British university who encounters a djinn during a lit meeting in a country in the Middle East and has conversations with him. I can’t remember whether she has sex with him as well (it’s been a while).

    What do all these writers have in common? They’re trying to freshen up the short story, to present a human narrative in a way that makes us see it in a new way. I’m happy to go along with them.

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