Home » criticism, Fiction

Thingamajig Unbound

By (March 1, 2014) No Comment

One More ThingOne More Thing: Stories and Other Stories
B.J. Novak
Knopf, 2014

Reading prose written by actors—and taking it seriously—presents a unique challenge. Because we feel like we know them, the film and television version of them anyway, there’s a danger of coloring their writing with false personality. Usually, that’s the desired effect. They’ve already used their fan-base like a magic rainbow, gliding over the drudgery of proving themselves worth publishing. Giving fans what they expect—and letting their adoration do the emotional heavy lifting—is just good math. If hilarious renaissance man Steve Martin can do it, then no-talent fashionista Lauren Conrad should too.

B.J. Novak, writer and actor from the seminal comedy The Office (2005-13), has joined their ranks with One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories. Judging by the ditzy title and grease-board cover, his book is aimed squarely at the legion of (mostly) twenty and thirty-somethings who followed the lives of Jim, Pam, Dwight, their boss Michael, and a long casting couch of others, as they worked Scranton, PA’s blandest job: selling paper.

KalingAs a fan of The Office, I’ll forever associate Novak with his character Ryan, the temp who bounced like Super Mario across his coworkers’ heads to become an erratic corporate shot-caller. Yes, I did read his book hoping for the show’s humor-through-humiliation brilliance—but I’d also braced myself for One More Thing to be an unnecessary addendum. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case when another writer/actor from The Office, Mindy Kaling (who played Ryan’s bubbly “love” interest, Kelly), wrote her almost-memoir-with-lists in 2011. Fairly intimate, casually fantastic, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) makes you feel, of course, like you are hanging with Kaling, who’s quite a bit more clever—and tolerable—than Kelly.

One More Thing, however, reveals nothing directly about Novak the man. What he’s written is categorically fiction; that I hear his—Ryan’s—voice as I read is beside the point. From the very first snippy-snip of prose, “The Rematch,” (which explains how the Hare coped with losing his famous race to the Tortoise) Novak opens a cache of tales that are magnetically odd in their own right. So if you don’t know the author from a Bostonian bar-hopper, but do happen to love short story auteur George Saunders (The Tenth of December), step ye forth.

The best bits in this collection, mainly situated up front, are spit-take clever—and as soon as Novak finishes pulling words from his sleeve like a magician’s colored cloth, you’ll want to page backward to see the trick again. “The Rematch,” four singing pages that would make Aesop slap his knee, ends with the line “slow and steady wins the race, till truth and talent claim their place.”

“Dark Matter” follows—about a broski dingbat who throttles a scientist into explaining the universe’s deepest secret, then zones out during the salient parts—quickly establishing Novak as a master ventriloquist. Here’s the narrator after finishing a condescending impression of the scientist for his pals:

We ordered two pizzas, one of which the place messed up, so we gave the delivery guy hell, and the whole thing ended up being free. My friends are insane, but I love them—you wouldn’t believe the stuff they did to this guy to convince him the pizza should be free, but it was all in good fun, for us at least. Then we watched a movie on TV that was somehow listed in the “classics” category, but it was so bad that it was actually hilarious to make fun of it. It was about a sled.

Novak, a Harvard graduate, surely experienced people like this as Cambridge’s many universities unloaded them, juvenile sense of entitlement and all, into the real world. Several other stories focus on people you love to hate, like “The Girl Who Gave Great Advice,” “All You Have To Do,” and “Julie and the Warlord,” about a woman so crushingly self-indulgent that when her date confesses to coveting child soldiers, she replies, “That does not sound legal.” Then, after Novak has pointed to a stain on the shirts of chick-lit authors like Emily Giffin, he offers a poke in the nose with the Discussion Question: “Do you think Julie should fuck the warlord? Why or why not?”

These savage voice-overs are firmly in Saunders’ territory—in fact, if you watch The Office Christmas episode from season two, without blinking, you’ll see that Pastoralia is one of the Secret Santa gifts. Nevertheless, One More Thing reads like a humor miscellany, with many of its “Other Stories” being nothing but a page, a paragraph, or just two sentences (“Kindness Among Cakes” is my favorite). Such pleasant exercises in micro-cleverness won’t have you tugging on a friend’s sleeve, saying, “You’ve got to read this!” like some longer pieces will. But they do help vary the terrain alongside Novak’s slice o’life jaunts and celebrity impersonations.

And what impersonations they are. Usually, famous people parody themselves in television and film to throw a fresh feather in their cap, like when the original cast of Star Trek appeared in the Futurama episode “Where No Fan Has Gone Before.” This trend has recently reached such surreal depths that we have to wonder if certain stars appreciate how heavily the joke leans on them. There’s a segment of the stoner comedy Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! for example, called “Little Danson Man.” Naturally, it features a shrinking Ted Danson, but also the power-balladry of 80s pop stars Richard Marx and Peter Cetera. Danson, smirking through most of the sketch, gets it. But the singers, belting out brainless lyrics in their aching, earnest voices, look like solid gold stooges.

There’s a similar sense of “Is this happening?” in Novak’s “The Something by John Grisham,” “Walking on Eggshells (or: When I Loved Tony Robbins)” and “Johnny Depp, Fate, and the Double-Decker Hollywood Tour Bus” (in which the actor, prodded by the cosmos, drives his motorcycle off Mulholland Drive to the horror of onlooking fans). These stories aren’t about celebrities cross-pollinating each other’s audience. This is about people who own their own islands saying, “He wrote for The Office? That’s great! Now where’s the check for using my name?” Then again, I’m cynical—and Grisham might find his asinine portrayal in this scene humorous:

“This is about concrete issues of our time maybe more than anything I’ve written since probably Pelican. And thematically, it’s about the unforseeable consequences of the compromises we all make. In any case, The Something is, on every level, a completely inappropriate title. Okay? Okay, Dale? Do you understand that now? How if you were to get any two words wrong in this book, these are the two pretty fucking important ones?”

“Yes,” said Dale. “Yes I do.”

John Grisham exhaled, feeling his breath leave his body as he did, like his wife’s yoga instructor had taught him to do that one time. He never went back to that yoga instructor, but he still thought about that session sometimes.

Then there’s the story about self-help guru Tony Robbins, who’s cornered by a woman who wants to bed him. Instead of calling security, he channels his boundless charisma into the groupie and convinces her that, with lots of sculpting, she could actually get her wish:

“Okay. But we gotta get serious,” he said, staring at me with those eyes again. “We’re gonna get you in the gym six days a week, three hours a day, on a cross-training regimen. It’s going to be brutal—are you up to it?” Yes! I said. “We’re going to get you hair extensions and super-low-rise jeans and a little yellow tattoo of a lightning bolt on your hip, okay? Because that’s what turns me on. Are you ready to do that?” Yes! I said. “We’re going to get you…” reading this book, attending that seminar, learning these interesting topics to talk about. Yes, I said, yes!

In a way, these slugs to living celebrities’ guts see Novak trading on his own fame (“The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela,” not-so-ironically, is his only dip into raunchiness). Yet, remove them from the book and we’re still engaged by his observatory prowess.

“The Ghost of Mark Twain,” arguably One More Thing‘s best story, features a conversation between a Bantam Scholastic Classics editor and a middle-school teacher who’s lobbied for face-time “Regarding the Language in Huckleberry Finn.” The editor assumes the teacher wants the word “nigger” removed, and unrolls his standard speech about mangling texts. The teacher replies that some works, like Arabian Nights and Shakespeare’s plays, have grown stronger by being updated throughout different eras. The villainous word, he argues, should appear in the classic more:

“And imagine how that would improve the book!” continued the teacher. “White students, African American students, foreign students new to this country—when they’re handed this book, they’re all expecting something explosive, something controversial, something they’ll want to talk about long into the night afterward, not because they’re told to do so by a teacher, but because they need to, because their heart beats quicker or slower depending on whether or not their friends agree with what they think. That’s the impact of the book that stays with you, isn’t it? It was Twain, after all, who said something to the effect of ‘Don’t let schooling get in the way of your education.’ Yes?”

This story’s astonishing last line is the charged stratosphere from which One More Thing descends into plushy innocuousness. As mentioned, there are many pieces about “average folk” that scamper across the page like kittens, working just hard enough to elicit an “Awww,” from readers. That isn’t to say “A Good Problem to Have,” “The Ambulance Driver,” and “Constructive Criticism” aren’t worthy additions—but their pathos would play more strongly in longer stories, featuring characters with whom we’ve traveled uphill.

A handful of tales do pull us uphill, including “Sophia,” “One of These Days, We Have to Do Something About Willie,” and “Kellog’s (or: the Last Wholesome Fantasy of the Middle-School Boy).” This batch sees Novak tackle troublesome topics—like loving an artificial being, alcoholism, and accidentally learning that your dad isn’t your dad—with a patient, exploratory hand. They prove that, minus a talented bench of actors, he can do more than spin cute yarns and lambast idiots.

But perhaps Novak’s finest accomplishment is to make us forget where we first heard of him. An impressive feat, considering that all of the ingredients that made The Office the defining comedy of its decade are present here: devastating snark, impeccable comedic timing, sweetness, wonder.

Not that Novak wants his fiction debut thought of as an addendum to The Office. Strange then, that he’d name this darling thingamajig One More Thing, as if he’s about to close up shop after decades of accomplished, triumphant storytelling. We can still look forward to more of that, right?

Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.