Stories That Teach: “Problems for Self-Study” by Charles Yu—Discussed by Brandon Williams

November 15, 2022

When we think of teachable stories, we often reach deep into the rucksack of the literary past, pulling out classroom-tested stories that have worked their way into the canon. While there is obviously a ton to learn from these pieces, contemporary short story writers are also completing strong work built upon teachable literary foundations, while also finding fascinating ways to advance the form. In this space, we’ll highlight some of these more modern stories and explore a bit of what they have to teach us as we continue to do our part to push literature forward.

In “Problems for Self-Study” by Charles Yu (published in The Harvard Review 23 and The Harvard Review Online December 3, 2020), we meet A, a recently graduated Ph.D. with a hero complex and an unpublished thesis that proves “a tiny truth [] about a tiny part of a tiny sliver of a tiny subset of all possible outcomes of the world.” Leaving his college town, he meets B, and the two of them decide to settle into a life together. Maybe.

If you read this piece as a straightforward story, as a piece with traditional narration and plot, with action and reaction, then there honestly isn’t a ton to talk about. There’s basically no setting, there’s almost no imagery at all, the characters are so un-complex they’re left unnamed so as to exist as theories of people rather than as human beings. The secondary plot of his thesis unraveling isn’t so much plot as it is quick summary on the sidelines, and the chosen structure and voice of this piece makes it virtually impossible to stay in scene for any real conflict to be built in the main plot either.

That said, there are plenty of unique elements to this story: the structure is a bit distinct, built as it is around individual sections named almost as chapters; we have a wraparound strategy at play where we begin and end the story in (maybe) the same place; and we don’t get any names for our characters (I feel the need to point out here that this piece is almost certainly based off of John Updike’s short story “Problems,” which uses some similar strategies). Visually, the most obviously unique point is that the story is written as a word problem, or as multiple word problems, as if you’re taking a test while reading—I’ll get to that in a second.

But at the of the day on the most obvious of levels, the story is this: A meets B, they get married, fall out of love, try to save their marriage in all the expected ways, and ultimately discover themselves to be incompatible even as they clearly care for each other. The main character, A, has all of the expected problematic and misogynistic concerns: he is only attracted to B because of her beauty, refuses the possibility that she is as intelligent as he, finds her whiny (even during childbirth!), strongly considers cheating on her when the marriage isn’t perfect, and then finally decides to hide in his garage with a passion project rather than engage with her. This is obvious, trite storytelling that we’ve read so many times.

So why bother? Well, look, this isn’t a straightforward story. If you’ve read any Charles Yu, you already know this, but: with this story, as with most of Yu’s pieces, the story itself isn’t the story we’re supposed to be following. The story that matters is the journey of reading and interpreting; our role as readers is to figure out what exactly is happening in the narrative, rather than the more traditional mode of determining which characters are doing what and why and then coming to a place of added understanding of the human condition. For this piece in particular, even though we have A and B written out for us, the reader can justifiably wonder whether A and B exist, whether they ever met, whether anything the story says happened actually did—and if it did, where exactly the story steps away from its narrative into a more theoretical mode.

In other words, this piece begs to be read as a collaborative journey between writer and reader. You, the reader, are determining what exactly is happening in the piece you’re reading. I want to stop and point out that on a theoretical level, that’s true of every piece of literature—it is, indeed, one of the things that separates literature from most other forms of art: the way that the reader is forced into active participation via imagination, having to build their own images of the images the writer creates—but normally stories take great pains to hide this truth. This is the so-called suspension of disbelief that writers are so often striving for, that Holy Grail of storytelling where readers know they’re reading falsehoods and yet create the reality of those falsehoods through the act of reading, and in so doing willingly forget the falseness that created the initial point. Stories, when told perfectly, come alive; I’m not saying anything new here. But in this story, as in much of Yu’s oeuvre, that script is flipped, and there is no place for the reader to hide from the building blocks of the story, even as they are still responsible for creating the reality of the text around themselves.

While there are plenty of other places to point out as well, there are two primary ways that we as reader are invited to choose our interaction with this text. First is with the aforementioned word problem second person point-of-view of the text. As a math-avoidant lit major, it never occurred to me that structuring the sections as word problems might be anything other than a narrative device, but I discovered the limits of my worldview the first time I taught this piece in an Intro class, where significant portions of the students were science and math majors. Before the class discussion, I was getting emails asking if I’d scanned the wrong document (from students who wanted nothing to do with math-adjacent things) as well as emails asking if I’d missed pages or calculated the formulas wrong (from students who were used to nothing but math-adjacent things). Students were attempting to solve those word problems. Now, the figures don’t come together in solvable ways, I’m told by students that tried, but the larger point stands: You can read this text and think of the word problems as a quirky visual representation of A’s mind and give them no thought, or you can alternately view them as an essential element of the page and choose to engage with them. Both options may result in frustration, albeit for different reasons (“Why structure an entire piece this way for a slightly deeper explanation of a character?” vs. “Why don’t these elements come together mathematically?”), but they are fundamentally different ways of looking at the text as it stands in front of you.

Perhaps that’s a small example, and perhaps the fact that the problems are unsolvable (again, my students tell me; I once failed to count to one hundred properly…in class…so I’m not trying to solve them in a public forum such as this) suggests that they’re not meant to be read in that manner. Okay, fine, so you’re through the first section and you’re sure that Yu means this to be read traditionally. The word problems are window coating. What else you got, story, to try to complicate this interaction between reader and writer?

Well, as mentioned before, this piece is bookended by two sections on a train. In each, A is traveling away from town M, carrying his suitcase and thesis. The emotions A is experiencing have changed, which leaves a fairly strong suggestion that he’s leaving the life we’ve just seen him experience with his wife. But the title of that section is “Initial Conditions,” leading a reader to potentially believe we’re back at the beginning.

So, these two sections could be happening at the same point in time (meaning the story inside their frame never happened, except something has clearly changed because his emotional relationship with town M has changed), or at traditional narrative points before and after the story (except why is he leaving his house the same geographical way he left the town?). Every time I’ve taught this story, the class ends up divided roughly evenly on the question of which is actually happening. Moreover, the final line of the story (“A point like any other point,” talking about the town that shaped him and how it could have been literally any place that did this) suggests that it possibly doesn’t even matter which we chose to throw our weight behind.

But this isn’t just a question of what happened, this is a question of how to even read the story—this isn’t as simple as a story taking place inside a character’s head. After all, the POV choice of word problems is already inside the character’s head: the only real justification for building this story in mathematical questions is that it represents A’s view of the world, so we’re functionally inside his head (at least on a representative level) in at least one layer of this story regardless. Moreover, there are multiple sections devoted to flashbacks, so A isn’t simply exploring the possibility of a life with B, the story is also considering what has brought him to this point where he is making these considerations. Why would that backstory be there if he’s just standing on a train, passing time imagining the possibility of him in a relationship with B? Alternately, if this is actually happening, why does everything sweep along so ridiculously easily and expectedly, from the conventionally attractive woman appearing at exactly the right moment to another love interest showing up as he’s contemplating ways to feel better about his failing marriage? If this is a story, why is the conflict so trite; if this is playing out inside his mind entirely, why are we deviating from the moments inside his head?

What I’m saying is, you build your argument for what this story is doing. There’s justification to be found for it. (On all sides?)

Another element to add here: at the end of that first section, we are asked to “calculate A’s final position.” Okay, so maybe the word problems aren’t solvable, but in a story where all the elements we’re given are as readily apparently and fictionally straightforward as this one, we readers sure can see where the story’s going from the start. So if you’re the type of reader that looks to solve a story, this piece is inviting you to do that with this phrasing, and implicitly with the word problems, and also easily paving the way for you to see every step as it comes.

I suppose I’ll also throw in here my personal favorite interpretation of this story: A’s thesis is about one small possibility of all possibilities that could exist, and this story is one possibility that could exist for A’s life. Thus, there’s an easy argument that the story actually is his thesis itself, that this story stands as his exploration of this “tiny subject of all possible outcomes of the world”—here is one moment, and how it could play out. In this reading, we zoom out even further so that the first and last section are also part of the thesis, building out an initial condition to then explore.

I don’t think this is a perfect story, and it’s fair to say that a lot of the elements I think of as interesting considerations could just as easily be solved by saying they’re flaws in the piece. “Why is the story so trite,” for instance, could be answered by saying that it’s because the story’s not strong enough to avoid triteness. I suppose. But every time I sit down and think about the places where this story loses me (the simplistic plot, the thin characters, the women who function entirely as vessels for A’s storyline and thoughts), I equally find myself playing through possibilities, other ways to take this story. I’m still not sure what I’m getting at, not exactly. I’m still not sure what I think. But I’m damn sure aware of my own self while I’m reading, and what I’m doing. There’s no passive reading allowed here; I’m interacting with this text. And to my mind, that’s a story worth studying.

I recently taught this piece in a Metafiction class, and asked if any of my students had thoughts they wanted to share. Those who replied are included (first publications, y’all!) below.

In regards to Charles Yu’s “Problems For Self-Study”, this piece of metafiction took a very interesting spin on the overcomplicated word problems that we all hated in grade school. In the beginning, it felt like I needed to start writing down what all the variables meant, and I loved the way that it took on this idea of uncertainty as the speaker ventured into the unknown future of their life. However, using a commonly structured way to describe the abstract concept of human emotions in said math problem is representative of the way the speaker fails to emote fully with those around him. It is evident that this detached style of empirical inquiry manifests itself in a deeply abstract concept, and, to me, it is quite beautiful.

Zoe Butler

At first glance “Problems for Self-Study” seems an inhospitable wasteland to those of us who have taken specific aims in our lives to avoid Mathematics. Seemingly devoid of emotion it of course came as a shock when I felt the struggles of the characters “A” and “B” more vividly than some of my favorite dramas. These are characters without human names, but when Yu describes their worries, their concerns, and their insecurities I cannot help but feel them too. Perhaps I am simply trying to grasp at anything to hold on to. Looking for any emotion I can find on this barren cliffside, but it seems unlikely that my experience is not the aim of Yu’s intentioned design. Yes, “Problems for Self-Study” is an intimidating journey, but if you are brave enough to face it you are rewarded with a truly human story. One which could not be told any other way.

Morgan Moore-Utterback

In a world where your existence boils down to a variable in an equation, factors of your life seem strategic, logical, and methodical. Charles Yu in his piece “Problems for Self-Study” manipulates and warps the definition of domestic life through a strict clinical lens to arrive at a solution gravely devoid of human emotion. The line “Some marriages are driven by love, some by gravity” eloquently synopsizes the text, warping what should be massive life milestones into an impactful metaphor insinuating he ended up in this situation solely because of pressures outside of his control; gravity being polarizing, forceful, and relentless. His marriage is not one of love, but of fact and force. Yu details life through the lens of a physicist so removed from the complexities of emotion that he misses out on the true beauty of marriage, fatherhood, and life in full vibrant color. Yu’s brilliant formatting, immersive scientific terminology, and steeply metafictional plot makes for a wild, unconventional love story like no other.

Courtney Pobst

by Brandon Williams


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