B.J. Novak — writer, actor, director and executive producer of NBC’s Emmy Award–winning television series The Office (which aired from 2005 to 2013) — is no novice writer. In a hilarious debut short story collection, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories (Knopf, 276 pp.), Novak moves from writing comedic screenplays to literary prose with confidence, ease and the expertise of a literary stalwart. The author will speak at the Atlanta History Center on February 21.
Although none of the pieces in One More Thing utilize the mockumentary style Novak helped to popularize in The Office, the collection is similarly character-driven, with a lens focused so closely on its protagonists’ psyches that the narratives feel tantalizingly confessional. Novak conquers the short story form in 64 entertaining and irreverent stories, some only two lines, whose subjects include a man whose sex robot falls head over heels for him, a jilted lover whose actions give new meaning to the term “closure” and a boy who takes constructive criticism to a whole new level.
Novak’s strongest stories explore the theme of pretentiousness. Evoking the irascible Ryan Howard, whom Novak played in the television series, several of the central characters grapple with narcissism, ego and an existential crisis regarding their importance in the world. In “Julie and the Warlord,” an African warlord contemplates the luxury of ceasefires and the irritating concept of a flourless cake. “The Rematch” envisions a new race between the now depressed and downtrodden hare and his arch nemesis, the sanctimonious slow-and-steady tortoise: “The hare trained like no one had ever trained for anything . . . and he did it all under a wall taped full of the mean, vicious things everyone had said about him in all the years since the legendary race that had ruined his life.”
In other narratives, Novak paints iconic figures with adept, yet tender strokes. In “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela,” the former president of South Africa cleverly highlights his altruism to get the last laugh. “Quantum Nonlocality and the Death of Elvis Presley” reveals the meaning behind those tawdry tabloid headlines insisting that the King of Rock and Roll was alive and well. Writes Novak, “When something that big is out there, a presence that size, it just doesn’t go undetected. It has to be sensed, and said, by someone, in some way.”
Though Novak pokes fun at pop culture idols — Tony Robbins, Johnny Depp, Neil Patrick Harris — he does so with tact and sensitivity. In “The Something by John Grisham,” Novak deftly exposes a character’s vulnerability without stripping him of his dignity.
“If he couldn’t enjoy a morning like this, wondered John Grisham; if he couldn’t appreciate learning about his own number-one bestseller in a crisp rolled-up newspaper delivered right to his front door, even now, deep into the internet age; if this book was number one again and the reviews were actually perfectly kind . . . If he couldn’t shrug this off and move on with his morning and have mercy on a perfectly decent guy like Dale who had made a mistake and felt terrible about it . . . then what was the point? What was it all for?”
A few stories read like doodles on the margin of a page; they lack in depth compared to Novak’s more developed, finely tuned narratives. Which is a shame. Because even some of his shortest stories introduce such charming, idiosyncratic characters and inventive plots, their premature endings seem like a failed attempt at a practical joke. Nevertheless, the book is a cohesive and immensely satisfying read, capturing an endearing eccentricity that is never forced or overblown.
In a satire of book club discussion questions, Novak asks his own readers, “Did you think the book was funny? Why or why not?”
To which one could easily answer, “Yes, Mr. Novak. But there are simply too many reasons to explain why.”
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