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Brains for Hire

posted by Melissa Jacoby

Posting again on fiction so soon? Not the original intention, but I recently read a story that skirts around the substantive core of Credit Slips, as well as the fabulous work of sociologist Viviana Zelizer, a past Credit Slips guest. Blame or gratitude can be sent c.o.d. to Charles Yu, a lawyer when he is not writing things like Standard Loneliness Package (also in Yu's recently published collection). The thirty-nine year old narrator receives 12/hour to absorb the pain and bad feelings from wealthy customers who pay 100, 200, 2,000/hour to be devoid of such pain and bad feelings. The price varies for watching a loved one die, a funeral, surgeries, root canal, breakups, firings, quittings, nose dives in the stock market (priced higher than some deaths). The company will not quote a price for death of a child.

The story includes a separate business. It buys and sells whole lives for a number of years, with proceeds going to the seller's family, annuity-style. Turns out the narrator knows something about that type of company too.

Yu is deliberate with his prose, and the above description excludes the narrative arc, so this post is no substitute for reading Yu's piece of speculative fiction (or for checking out the book trailer). George Saunders' earlier story Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz in this collection explores some similar themes, although to different effect. Surely there are many others. 

What insights do stories like Standard Loneliness Package offer into financial distress and speculative business ventures? Gentle reader, I am considering this a take-home exam question for myself. Feel free to join me. Open book and notes, no set deadline.

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