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Charles Yu quarantines with disaster blockbusters, Wong Kar-wai and ‘Ozark’

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Charles Yu in quarantine, with the books inspiring his writing.
(From Charles Yu)

The Times asked authors to track what they do in isolation. Charles Yu, whose most recent novel is “Interior Chinatown,” reads about Uber and (what else?) an apocalyptic pandemic, watches apocalyptic blockbusters, plays “Portal 2,” exercises and gets into “Ozark.”

Thursday, April 2


Today is Thursday. I no longer know what that means.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been writing full-time at home (my own fiction as well as for TV), so self-isolation has not changed my daily routine. Other than the fact that my kids now go to school in our kitchen. They’re 12 and 10, but I live in constant fear of waking up one morning to find that they grew up overnight. I’ll walk out to see them packing up the car, headed off to colleges very far away. Which is to say, having this time with them feels like a bonus, a parent’s secret wish fulfilled. Except, in the perverse logic of a “Twilight Zone” episode, my wish came true under the worst imaginable circumstances. After walking the dog, feeding the dog and making the bed, I sit down to work.

I open Microsoft Word. I take a sip of coffee. I close Microsoft Word.

I pick up my copy of “Fleabag,” the original script for Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s one-woman play. This is definitely procrastinating. My rationale is that I’m getting her voice into my head. It seemed like a good idea, but after finishing I just want to binge the show again.

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Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the stage version of “Fleabag,” now streaming on Amazon Prime.
(Joan Marcus )

In the afternoon, I still can’t get into a groove, so I rewatch a bit of Ronny Chieng’s Netflix special. A good laugh helps, and this never fails. I eventually find a groove and get some work done.

After dinner, it’s family movie time. My turn in the rotation. Last time I chose “Edge of Tomorrow,” in which Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt have to live out the same day over and over again until they figure out how to beat the aliens. Tonight my choice is “Independence Day” ... another movie about humanity uniting to defeat an enemy life form. My subconscious is not exactly subtle.

While brushing our teeth, my wife, Michelle, says tomorrow is the last day of spring break. I start laughing like an idiot, toothpaste running down my chin. It’s not funny, she’s not laughing, but I can’t stop. For whatever reason it hits me all once. The idea of differentiating between weekdays and weekends, the idea of “coming back” from “spring break.” The idea that we had plans for March and April and this fall and 2021. That the future was predictable because we wrote it down with a dry-erase marker on the whiteboard.

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Authors like Lionel Shriver, Alexander McCall Smith, Laura Lippman and Steph Cha are under coronavirus quarantine too. Here’s what they’re reading.

Friday


I’ve been waking up between 5:30 and 6. The fight with the news begins right away. Some days I dive in immediately, and by midmorning I’m burned out. So I’m trying a countermeasure: If I want to click on a headline, I open an e-book instead.

I finish “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” by Mike Isaac, which was a great story, well told. I dive right into my next book, “The Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel, which I’ve been excited about. Last month I reread her novel “Station Eleven,” which, given its subject matter (a worldwide pandemic destroys civilization as we know it), might seem like not the best for right now, but turned out to be exactly what I needed. She writes with such beauty and insight about the time before and the time after, about all of the things I normally take for granted and am now seeing with fresh eyes thanks to her novel.

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Emily St. John Mandel and her novels, “Station Eleven” and “The Glass Hotel.”
(Sarah Shatz; Knopf)
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In preparation for this piece, I reread Steph Cha’s quarantine diaries, which I really enjoy. Her voice is smart and funny. One thing I’m struck by: Only a week or so later, her entries already feel slightly historical, a document of a measurably different world. I wonder if by the time this is published, mine will feel that way as well.

Midafternoon, my stomach informs me it needs a cookie. I eat two, for safety. Before long, it’s my stomach calling again, but also my subconscious, which needs inspiration. I drop into Wong Kar Wai’s “Chungking Express,” one of my favorite films, set in a Hong Kong that feels at once crowded but lonely.

Tonight’s movie selection belongs to my son — “Thor: Ragnarok,” which he and I have both seen multiple times. Korg, voiced by Taika Waititi, is easily my favorite character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After the kids go to bed, my wife and I watch another episode of “Little Fires Everywhere,” based on Celeste Ng’s compelling novel. I’m really enjoying the performances, especially Pearl’s. The ‘90s soundtrack has me wondering how much they spent on music licensing. Whatever it was, it was totally worth it.

I have a nightcap while we watch our nightcap: an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the latest season. It’s been one reliable thing that we both look forward to in the past couple of weeks.

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Emily St. John Mandel chronicles a global pandemic and financial crisis in her novels, ‘Station Eleven’ and ‘The Glass Hotel.’

Saturday


Awake again before sunrise. A quiet hour in the dark to read “The Glass Hotel.”

I keep piles of books by me whenever I’m working. When I get stuck or just need a break, it’s sometimes helpful to dip into someone else’s mind and/or universe. It’s part support group, part writers’ room, having them within reach. Right now I’m looking at “The Blinds” by Adam Sternbergh, “Dead Astronauts” by Jeff Vandermeer. “The City in the Middle of the Night” by Charlie Jane Anders. Stories that transport me to a very different place.

My wife ordered some resistance bands so we could work out at home. Whenever I’m feeling down about everything, exercise changes my mood dramatically. We go outside and play catch, and a fun game called KanJam, which was introduced to me by Daniel Stessen, the creator of an Adult Swim show I worked on called “Dream Corp LLC.” I learned a lot from the other writers on the show, but the greatest gift they gave me was teaching me how to play KanJam. Later, my son and I play some indoor basketball in his room. He’s been obsessed since finishing Gene Luen Yang’s new book, “Dragon Hoops,” an entertaining and inspiring true story about a high school basketball team’s journey to the state championship.

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Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff Vandermeer, author of “Dead Astronauts,” a Charles Yu quarantine read.
(Richard Klienik)

After the kids turn in, my wife and I finish the last episode of “Hillary” on Hulu. There’s one shot, of Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office with President Obama, and I think about an alternative universe in which our president was handling things very differently. I read an article about how well the Taiwanese government has managed the process of testing, tracking, distancing. It’s great to see that people have noticed. At the same time, I’m seeing the reports about incidents of racism and xenophobia, and I worry about what things will be like when life resumes. It’s depressing to think about how fragile the status of Asian Americans is. To think about the millions of immigrants who have lived in this country for years, even decades — and yet to some they have been and always will be just “Asians” or “Orientals.” Or worse.

Sunday


Up early again. Impossible to sleep in, even on a Sunday. My body used to know what a Sunday was, but it has forgotten.

My son and I play some “Portal 2" on the Xbox 360. The game is almost 10 years old now, but it recently occurred to me that my son is now old enough to solve the puzzles. Of course, within about five minutes, he is the one explaining things to me. Later, my daughter and I watch Helen Mirren on MasterClass. It’s been harder to find things my daughter will do with me, but I’m hoping to make this a semi-regular thing.

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Charles Yu exercising with his wife, Michelle, and their dog.
(Charles Yu.)
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I get a pop-up alert for meetings I was supposed to have in L.A. this week, all canceled. I think about going through and deleting all the events I had coming up this year — I was supposed to travel to Seattle, Minneapolis, Paris — but I can’t do it. I want a record of my 2020 That Never Was. As if the parallel reality where none of this happened could still exist, if only in my calendar.

Suddenly, it’s evening, and the week is almost over. I will likely finish “The Glass Hotel” tomorrow, am already looking forward to what’s next: a galley of “Animal Spirit” by Francesca Marciano I was lucky enough to get my hands on. Next week, I’ll buy even more books. Having a long TBR pile might be a very mild form of optimism, but it feels good to support booksellers and publishers and writers. Words bring us together, and that social cohesion is what we will need to get through the coming months. (That and “Ozark.”)


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