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Some Notes from a Freelance Protagonist

I work in a neighborhood called Eveningside Heights, which is a made-up name in the sense that (a) no one here has ever called it that, and (b) I just made it up.I work in a neighborhood called Eveningside Heights, which is a made-up name in the sense that (a) no one here has ever called it that, and (b) I just made it up. Over the years there have been suggestions for a better label — some call it the Slipstream, which admittedly does sound pretty cool — but for the most part, people who are actually from this place don't feel the need to refer to it at all. We just know what it is, which is a slender finger of real estate, about three avenues wide and a dozen blocks long, situated between Science Fiction (to the north) and the Mainstream (to the east and south). To the west is a river, on the other side of which is New Jersey.

This is a border region, a fluid, dynamic boundary layer where the two surrounding genres mix and mingle and, as is often the case with border regions, a couple of things hold true:

(i) the food here is very cheap and very good, and
(ii) upon arrival, you will quickly realize that the map you got in the tourist center is useless.

Those solid, clear lines of cartographic demarcation aren't actually painted on the ground. The perimeter between this place and the adjoining areas is not the smooth curve of theory. It's the jagged empirical edge formed by ten thousand real data points, ten thousand local interactions between two narrative ecosystems, ten thousand stories that don't fit anywhere but here, in this place between places.

I came to this district to find work as a protagonist. Before coming here, I'd done a lot of background work, mostly in Sad Rich People Talking in Nice Apartments. I'll be the first to admit, I never had a knack for it. Partly it was a lack of talent. There was something else, though. I could never stay in stories. I was always falling out of them, pulling away, breaking the frame. My inability to stay engaged in a narrative resulted in a lot of failed productions. No one would hire me, and worse, I knew I didn't deserve to be hired. I needed to find something different.

I still remember my very first job here. The temp agency sent me out on a short story called "Stormtrooper Arrives for Dinner Party at 74th and Lex." I was the stormtrooper. I wasn't even the protagonist; that role belonged to the husband of the society matron hosting the party. He's tired of his wife's friends, their never-ending wine-soaked conversations that spiral downward into the night. Just when he thinks he can't take another minute of it, the doorbell rings, and there I am, an imperial stormtrooper in full, gleaming white battle armor, plasma rifle at my side. He invites me in, awkwardness ensues. His wife is pissed. Her friends are amused. Lots of whispering, then an argument, and then a nice little epiphany for the guy.

I was just a metaphor in that one, and looking back, it did have somewhat hokey production values, but I was hooked. It was a glimpse of what was possible, of whole new kinds of work I had never seen before. After the story was over, I even went back and traded numbers with the husband. We became drinking buddies. I call him Dinner Party Guy.

I kept temping, working odds and ends, picking up a few things here and there, and I eventually wormed my way into a job with a real company, a story production facility. They gave me some weapons training, a key card, a sense of continuity. Most importantly, though, I continued to like the work. I liked not knowing what was going to happen next. I've been here almost two years now, and I have no plans to leave.

About a month ago, I had lunch with Dinner Party Guy. He still works in midtown Mainstream. And even though we had that whole epiphany thing together, he still kind of looks down on what I do. The way he sees it, working here hurts my chances of ever working in any other category.

"You like it here because it's easy," he says. "There are no rules. You can just make up whatever you want."

"And how is that different from your fictional neighborhood?"

"Well, for instance, there's this little thing we have in realism called physics."

"We have that, too."

"Yeah but ours is internally consistent."

"You mean like how quantum mechanics and general relativity are consistent?"

"Okay, fine. Maybe not fully consistent yet," he admits. "But at least in a realist story we aren't allowed to just take a whole bunch of stuff we don't understand, wave our hands around it, give it a cool name, then call it technology.""But at least in a realist story we aren't allowed to just take a whole bunch of stuff we don't understand, wave our hands around it, give it a cool name, then call it technology."

"You mean like dark matter?"

"Okay, shut up."

"And dark energy."

"Shut up. Shut up. Shut up."

That's pretty much how all of our conversations go, with him trying to convince me that my world is full of made-up stuff, and me pointing out that his is, too.

The thing is, I don't have any problem with where he lives. I really don't. There's tons of great work being done by the realism industry. It's important, too; no one's arguing that. And I don't want to be overly reductive about it, either. Plenty of firms that operate in Mainstream districts are not doing realism, and plenty of realism is being produced in places outside the Mainstream. I just wish I didn't have to defend where I work.

I should say that I have noticed a lot more movement back and forth these days, people working in this neighborhood, then moving on to a story in the Mainstream, then back over here. Same with Science Fiction, too.

And the other day, I even caught Dinner Party Guy in a local diner, eating lunch by himself, trying to hit on alien women.

"You never come around here except to eat," I say.

"Yeah, well, what can I say," he said. "The food's good."

Maybe I'll get him over here one of these days, get him a role on a job. Maybe I won't. But I'm kind of past that. I don't really care if he ever comes around to my point of view. I've found the kind of work I like to do, whether or not Dinner Party Guy approves. I want to be in stories here in this region, and I want to keep pushing the edges of the regions outward, trespassing into places I'm not permitted to operate, places where the realism police might arrest me. Some of my protagonist buddies, we even do some guerilla ops, barging in on realist stories, making everyone feel uncomfortable. We're hoping that we can keep growing this place, annexing territory a little bit at a time, making friends with the characters who live one block over, then the next block from there, and so on. Then maybe one day I can pull off my dream project. The idea would be to dress up my entire neighborhood, drape it in a realist style, from architecture and public spaces down to the furniture, the texture of carpets and social interactions; everything so seamless that it feels exactly like realism which, in a sense, it will be. Characters from Mainstream will start moving into the neighborhood, gentrifying the place, and when we've got the whole lot of them convinced they are in a realist world, we'll tear it all down and show them where they really are, where they've been all along.

÷ ÷ ÷

Charles Yu received the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 Award for his story collection Third Class Superhero, and he has also received the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award. His work has been published in the Harvard Review, The Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Mississippi Review, and Mid-American Review, among other journals. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Michelle, and their two children.

Books mentioned in this post

Charles Yu is the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

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