Stories and Other Stories
By B.J. Novak
Knopf. 276 pp. $24.95
It isn’t easy to make a reader laugh out loud. Even when confronted with the sharpest, funniest prose, many people will respond with nothing more than a quiet chuckle. Perhaps society has trained us to approach literature with a certain level of decorum. Or maybe we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves while reading on the Metro, especially from that weird guy wearing flip-flops when it’s 20 degrees out.
Whatever the reason, all I can say is good luck chuckling quietly during “One More Thing,” the wonderfully cockeyed, consistently hilarious debut from B.J. Novak. The co-star, writer and co-executive producer of NBC’s “The Office,” which ended its nine-season run last year, has captured a lot of media attention with this collection of 63 fictional narratives and comedic vignettes — partly because of the seven-figure deal he signed last year with its publisher and partly because it’s just that good. Given his background in TV comedy writing as well as stand-up, it’s not surprising that Novak knows how to stick a great line or milk a funny premise with the right amount of squeeze. What’s more striking is the wild imagination he brings to these pages, taking familiar narrative constructs — a woman and a man on a blind date — and infusing them with the unexpected: The guy turns out to be . . . a warlord? (“The words ‘rape’ and ‘limbs’ came up more than on any other date she could remember.”)
Nearly every story brings a deliciously wry jolt of the unexpected. In “The Rematch,” Novak follows the hare as he trains for a follow-up race with the tortoise, who is now doing charitable work with “The Slow and Steady Foundation.” In “Wikipedia Brown and the Case of the Missing Bicycle,” the author imagines how useless Encyclopedia Brown would have been at solving mysteries if he functioned by today’s Internet standards. (“ ‘The government caused 9/11!’ Wikipedia Brown shouted suddenly, for no reason.”) In “No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg,” Novak confirms that the afterlife exists and that its live-music options are spectacular.
Novak’s sensibility is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s but with a lot more references to texting, tweeting and using apps. His style is part Steven Wright and part Charlie Kaufman, married with a sharp ear for (and satire of) contemporary pop culture.
In “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela,” presented as the transcript from a 2012 evening of Mandela-ribbing that featured the network’s usual band of insult lobbers, Novak delivers a spot-on spoof and an incisive commentary on squandering one’s freedom of speech. “When we can say anything, what do we say?” Mandela asks the audience when it’s his turn, prompting “visible particles of physical shame” to “fly from the pores of Jeffrey Ross.”
Obviously, not everything in this collection qualifies as a story in the traditional sense. Many are just humorous riffs, some with fewer syllables than a haiku. Take “Romance, Chapter One,” reprinted here in full:
“The cute one?”
“No, the other cute one.”
“Oh, she’s cute too.”
Novak does stretch his legs at times, writing a few short stories of more substantial length and with more defined narrative arcs. The longest of these is “Kellogg’s (or: The Last Wholesome Fantasy of the Middle-School Boy),” in which an unnamed adolescent travels to the cereal company’s Michigan headquarters to claim a $100,000 prize he won off a cornflakes box, a tale that plays out, in some ways, like a flipped-script version of Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” He plots it well — the twist is one most won’t see coming. But this story and others would benefit from deeper character development. At times, Novak’s protagonists seem like cardboard cutouts working to serve the writer’s voice instead of developing their own.
Novak closes his collection with the tale of J.C. Audetat, a poet wannabe who wins widespread acclaim with his English translations of literary classics — including “The Great Gatsby.” Audetat (sounds like “autodidact”) updates previous authors’ works in largely insignificant ways, but no one seems to notice, as illustrated by the quotations from critics praising him. The story is a critique of several things, including media buzz and how it can sometimes be disproportionate to an artist’s actual skill. Perhaps that subject was on Novak’s mind as he considered how his literary work would be received.
If he was worried, he shouldn’t have been. This is his first book of fiction — he has others coming, including a children’s picture book — and he’s already established himself as both a gifted observer of the human condition and a very funny writer capable of winning that rare thing: unselfconscious, insuppressible laughter.
Chaney is a culture writer whose work appears in The Washington Post, New York magazine’s Vulture, the Dissolve and other outlets.
On Saturday at 6 p.m., B.J. Novak will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.