May 28, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 22

Arts & Entertainment

Small thoughts

Book Review - One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories / By B.J. Novak

A debut story collection by a former writer for ‘The Office’ demonstrates that sometimes, brevity can be the soul of ‘lit’

Photo by Jon Williams / Arts Editor

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B.J. Novak writes tight.

In his short story collection, “One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories,” the former actor/writer/director/executive producer of NBC’s long-running hit “The Office” gets the chance to show the American public what he has to offer besides a talent for adapting British source material.

Novak does not disappoint. He surprises and even outright shocks the reader at times, but nothing in “One More Thing” feels second-hand. Novak has a voice all his own, and it is fresh and engaging.

The stories — if one can call each of these words-on-paper creations “stories” — are bizarre and wonderful. Some are only two lines long, mere wisecracks. Others are sad and sublime, though still short. Novak manages to insert more than 60 “stories” into just 271 pages.

Case in point: “Kindness Among Cakes,” which is presented here in its entirety:

“Child: ‘Why does carrot cake have the best icing?’

“Mother: ‘Because it needs the best icing.’”

That’s it. A quaint observation or a Hallmark card sentiment, perhaps. But it’s cute and quick and indicative of Novak’s sensibility, which is closely observed and relatable.

Here’s another, titled “The Walk to School on the Day After Labor Day.”

“I was sad that summer was over. But I was happy that it was over for my enemies, too.”

Novak’s one-two punch style is far more successful in his longer pieces. “I guess that’s good, when your invention takes on a life you never expected. That’s what the inventor of the scarf told me — it was originally supposed to be a weapon,” he observes in his witty “The Man Who Invented the Calendar.” Or, “I realized I was turning love into an accomplishment and he was turning accomplishment into love, and neither of those things would ever quite be the other,” from “Walking on Eggshells (or: When I Loved Tony Robbins).”

Most of Novak’s tales are steeped in early 21st century pop culture. Read them soon, because they will seem dated within two years. The author has a unique willingness to take crazy risks on the page, most notably in his habit of writing from the perspective of real pop culture icons, including “The Something by John Grisham,” “Johnny Depp, Fate, and the Double-Decker Hollywood Tour Bus,” the almost-tasteless satire “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela” and the actually tasteless but hilarious “Chris Hansen at the Justin Bieber Concert” about an awkward outing by TV’s famed pedophile hunter.

Reading these stories feels scary. You can smell the lawsuits riding on the wind. They certainly wouldn’t be allowed to play in the usual short story romping grounds of The Iowa Review or McSweeney’s. And yet, stories from “One More Thing” have been published in respectable literary outposts ranging from Zoetrope to Nautilus and newsstand staples like Playboy and The New Yorker.

Though he seems to want to be concise and clever at all costs, Novak’s default tone is sincerity. When he indulges himself and writes more than two pages, he succeeds in creating memorable tales, as in the dream-come-true of every American kid, “Kellogg’s (or: The Last Wholesome Fantasy of the Middle-School Boy)”; the intensely sad “Her”-like meditation on the technological potential of love, “Sophia”; or the pointed exposé of how the addiction tropes of the Internet generation are ineptly navigated within the bounds of friendship, “One of These Days, We Have to Do Something About Willie.”

Novak’s writing is a breeze to read, with a single exception: Many of his stories final sentences crash onto the page like bars of lead. They bring to mind translations from a foreign language whose idiom is so dense that the reader of the English version is left baffled by what the author meant. Was it a pun or cultural reference that cannot be rendered in any but the mother tongue? After stumbling over several of these deadfalls, a recent interview given by Novak clears it all up. The stories in “One More Thing” originated from jottings in a writer’s notebook that Novak kept over the course of eight years (so many ephemeral ideas: one-liners, jokes, sketches for TV pilots, entire screenplay outlines), which were developed into stories in front of live audiences.

Give these flat endings a comedian’s sense of timing, an evocative gesture and a verbal tic or two, and they suddenly make sense. Not the sense that Novak intended, since the reader cannot see or hear his live performance, but the kind of sense gleaned from reading the screenplay of a classic movie that includes scenes that never made the final cut. The reader frowns slightly, shrugs and trusts that it’s probably brilliant.

“One More Thing” is the ultimate airport book, the ideal beach read. Like the greatest stand-up routines, it may fall flat at times, but it keeps the energy high and the jokes coming, and even if the last bit died, there’s always another coming that just might kill you with laughter. Or haunt you with its uncanny insight.

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