B.J. Novak is a genuinely funny guy, no doubt about that. But even the best funny guys need a good editor now and then. That goes double when talking literature, the great intellectual escape for those writer-slash-comedians (rather than comedian-slash-writers) who need respite from having their work hacked within an inch of its life for mass consumption. David Sedaris and Dave Barry are examples of the former; Steve Martin and Stephen Fry the latter. Good company to be in, that’s for sure.
Time and talent will tell which side Novak ends up on, but One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories positions him as a writer struggling to break free of Hollywood’s perverse sanitization cycle, a reminder that his roots run just as deep in the literary world, chiefly that of satire. Let’s not forget he helped shepherd the US version of The Office, which started strong before its inevitable decline into cataclysmic mediocrity, he’s fared well at the box-office, though usually in supporting roles that seldom showcase his considerable gifts for observation.
On the whole, the book reads like small exercises in expressed literalism, thought it may be the kind of book that’s more fun to talk about than actually read. The worst feel jumbled together in some hodge-podge of disconnected mental exercises and stories (a loose definition) more interested in reaching word counts than actually making words count. Had it not been for Novak’s starpower it’s difficult to imagine this even being published, by a mainstream publisher, in its current form.
But there is good stuff buried within the existential rambles. The satire comes fast and loose, in language that’s sardonically precise. Had his editing team gone for a tighter selection the result might have been more impressive by exclusion alone, a volume praised as much for brevity as its silliness.
The best of the bunch is actually the first, “The Rematch”, which updates Aesop’s Tortoise and the Hare with a reality gut punch missing from the original fable. Here Novak is genuinely fresh and inventive, which only makes most of the following sixty-plus stories – many little more than inflated paragraphs – so disappointingly inconsistent. Then again, try packing sixty of anything in one place and see how good your batting average is.
There’s plenty that’s forgettable, so let’s instead focus on the pieces which aren’t. These range from perversely funny long pieces (“The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela”), to less than a paragraph of text (“The Literalist’s Love Poem” is a mere nine syllables, but still very funny).
“Sophia”, a longer piece which gives the book its title, is a confessional of sorts where the fictional author’s rejection of his sex robot’s affections have made him the scorn of social media and the world alike. “The Something by John Grisham” imagines how a certain best-selling author of legal fiction might react to a generic placeholder sneaking its way into print. “I Never Want to Walk on the Moon” admits that lunar exploration may be more trouble than its worth for the lazy throngs of satiated consumers.
“’Rithmetic”, where a school makes a secret pact with students to just give up on math, would be hilarious if it weren’t so frighteningly prophetic. “The Man Who Invented the Calendar” is fun satire, recalling early Mel Brooks spoofs, while “If I Had a Nickel” is a perfect Novak piece, where an overused idiom is inflated to its most literal conclusion.
“J. C. Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote” is a brilliant roasting of pretentious academia, written in the same pompous tone its skewering. I’d like to imagine, with no small amount of joy, literary critics snubbing their noses at this one, the point utterly lost on them. That Novak often includes a set of discussion questions is doubly delicious.
One More Thing is worth traipsing through the filler to get to the killer, which is undeniably good stuff when it connects, and not unlike Novak’s most obvious inspiration: Israeli writer Etgar Keret. But with over sixty pieces a little snip-snipping would’ve trimmed the fat as Novak is truly impressive when nurturing his better ideas to fruition, ditching the awkward stream-of-consciousness hipster rambling for stronger, buttressed explorations of the familiar and the weird. There’s potential here, certainly, and that alone makes Novak’s future volumes worth looking out for.