In B.J. Novak's 'One More Thing,' comic fiction from the actor and writer unveils a restless mind at work.
By Stefan Beck for The Barnes & Noble Review
Many years ago, the New Statesman held a competition challenging its readers to invent improbable book titles, and the winning entry was "My Struggle, by Martin Amis." Martin, as the son of the devilishly funny Kingsley Amis, had to overcome the prejudices that accompanied his pedigree through sheer talent, on display in "The Rachel Papers" and following works of acid comedy. A similar resentment surfaces whenever a celebrity – let's say, James Franco – is permitted to publish a book that would not have passed muster minus a buzz-generating name. Readers, many of whom may dream of publication themselves, like to believe in a level playing field.
This may be why the VP of Knopf noted, in the publicity materials for B. J. Novak's One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, that she had never heard of him when she "first read the book now in your hands," though Novak had been in America's living rooms from 2005-13 as the insufferable Ryan Howard of NBC's "The Office". Of course, Novak was also one of the show's chief writers, and at Harvard he majored in English and Spanish literature and worked on the Lampoon. Could it be that literature and not TV is Novak's true calling? Could it be that he should quit his day job?
Perish the thought. "One More Thing" shows that Novak's career in television, as a writer and an actor, goes hand-in-glove with his literary ambition, each informing and reinforcing the other. The book is less a proper story collection than a polished notebook, a look into the creative process of a comic mind. It contains not only short fiction but also bits, riffs, gags, and Deep Thoughts – as in Jack Handey's, not Blaise Pascal's. True to its title, evocative as it is of a shaggy-dog story, "One More Thing" contains over five dozen "stories," a few not much longer than the text in a fortune cookie:
Marie's Stupid Boyfriend
Nobody didn't play guitar "on principle." Either you can play the guitar, or you can't.
You don't "don't."
Much of Novak's humor stems from the comic outrage of which this is a distillate, a sense of injured disbelief at having to live in such ridiculous times with such obnoxious, such un-self-aware, such deeply flawed people. That outrage accounts for the success of "The Office" and the potency of every Jim Halpert reaction shot. (It is also a humbling reminder that no matter how many people you shake your head sadly at, someone is always shaking his head sadly at you.) Novak takes on vapid dates in "Julie and the Warlord" and hubristic tech titans in "The Impatient Billionaire and the Mirror for Earth." "Sophia," in which a man buys the first sex robot capable of love, sends up both our fetishization of science and the low-tech workings of the male id.
Egos are punctured throughout "One More Thing," as in "MONSTER: The Roller Coaster": "The almost-legendary artist Christo was on the verge of completing a dream that he had held close through his entire career: to design an American roller coaster inspired by nothing less profound than life itself – life, the ultimate roller coaster." The ride is ultimately renamed according to the dictates of marketing, "murdered by idiot whims," and poor Christo must concede, "That's life." It's a long joke, cocked at a familiar target, but in a time when reality constantly outruns satire, it's nice to be reassured that just because something mocks itself by existing, doesn't mean it can't be mocked even harder.
Novak mines even more embarrassing aspects of the way we live now, sometimes just for comic effects and sometimes for more broadly emotional ones. "Missed Connection" and the ingenious "Wikipedia Brown and the Case of the Missing Bicycle" ("Every time we talk to Wikipedia Brown, we get distracted.") fall into the former category, while "The Man Who Posted Pictures of Everything He Ate," for all it looks like a straight-ahead dig at Instagram and other social media apps, leaves the reader with an unpleasant aftertaste of a very modern loneliness.
Though many of Novak's bits are squarely in the Handey or Steve Martin vein, some of his longer efforts are genuinely acerbic, thought-provoking, or even moving; the book begins to feel like a bathroom reader with an unusually commodious intellect behind it. It would be silly to put Novak in Kingsley Amis's weight class – the two are not even playing the same sport, really – but one suspects the King would have appreciated Novak's project, to spit his venom while also entertaining and, on top of that, offering something like moral instruction, or at times a bracing dose of shame.
The standout here is "One of These Days, We Have to Do Something About Willie." Some recent college graduates are trying to stage an intervention, in Las Vegas of all places, for their party-monster friend. Here as elsewhere, Novak's prose is in a distinctly modern idiom, the short story as confessional Gawker post – or NBC teleplay, for that matter – but here as nowhere else in "One More Thing," the idiom amplifies the gravity of what follows. The story is not about alcoholism or interventions; it is about finding out that your adult expertise is an illusion, that your insight into others' lives is wishful thinking. "It felt like no one had ever been our age before," the narrator says. He and his circle of friends have fixated on Willie and his problems in order to pretend that they themselves are on solid ground.
There are certainly duds in "One More Thing". The anxiously sophisticated "J. C. Audetat, Translator of 'Don Quixote'", a riff on Borges, is memorable mostly for how uneasy it feels. But unevenness is no surprise for a book of five dozen squibs, and the duds are outweighed by the jokes and stories that provoke reflection as well as laughs. Novak even offers some pointed commentary on the joke-making process itself, first in his eerily timed "The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela" and then in the coarser story "The Bravest Thing I Ever Did." The bravest thing cannot be described herein, but the lesson that comes with it is good advice for anyone who hopes to be as funny and as wise as Novak:
"It's not always enough to be brave, I realized years later. You have to be brave and contribute something positive, too. Brave on its own is just a party trick."