One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, by BJ Novak, Little Brown, RRP£12.99/Knopf, RRP£24.99, 264 pages
There is nothing like reviewing a collection of comic short stories to kill any laughs. It’s the critical equivalent of butterfly collecting. So let’s get one thing out of the way: BJ Novak’s debut One More Thing is very funny, and there aren’t enough funny books in the world.
Yet, in places it verges on the facetious. It might, too, have benefited from culling some of the more whimsical among its 60-plus pieces. Apparently Novak collected ideas for the book on Post-it notes, which he stored in a shoebox during his time as an actor and executive producer on the American version of The Office, and some of the shorter stories have barely developed beyond their sticky scribbled origins. Nevertheless, the scattergun approach has a gratifyingly high hit rate, while at his best Novak adds emotional depth to some well-crafted, often explosive pay-offs.
If One More Thing is about any single thing apart from making people laugh, it’s about the human inability to find perspective. Novak’s comic universe is full of people who cannot see the wood for modern life’s trees. A woman goes on a blind date with a genocidal warlord and struggles not with her conscience but with small talk (“So, do you get to travel a lot?”). A man reveals why he thinks the idea of walking on the moon is overrated compared with the walking trails of Knox County, Tennessee. A group of college friends are so consumed with staging a media-inspired “intervention” to help their substance-abusing buddy that they miss the greater problem under their noses. And so on.
More often than not, the characters in One More Thing seem to be staring down the wrong end of life’s telescope. They are not without idealism or vision. The book is full of grandiose dreams, from a life-saving paramedic who wants to be a famous musician, to the impatient billionaire who commissions a space mirror as large as Earth so that he can wave to himself. Mostly, however, the sublime is sabotaged by one variety of folly or another, individual or collective.
So it is that, in one story, an artist designs a roller-coaster “inspired by nothing less profound than life itself” only to have it renamed “Monster” by a focus group. “Oh well, thought Christo,” the story ends. “That’s life.” This is also pretty much Novak’s response to human fallibility – a resigned shrug. For a satirist, he is happily devoid of misanthropy.
A favoured Novak technique is to take a piece of received wisdom and push it to the boundaries of absurdity. The most obvious example is the opening story, “The Rematch”, a rerun of Aesop’s fable in which a chastened hare and a complacent tortoise take to the track again with predictable results (“Slow and steady wins the race, till truth and talent claim their place”). Likewise, in “If I Had a Nickel” the narrator sets out to prove the truth of the statement “If I had a nickel for every time I spilled a cup of coffee I’d be rich”, factoring in not only the cost of cups, beans and staff but psychological counselling for “devoting my life’s work to this crushingly bizarre and isolating activity”. The reader may choose how much to read into this. Is it a spoof on a certain kind of business culture? A satire on the futility of ambition? An extended verbal doodle?
Similarly teasing is a story in which a headteacher decides that the problem with the three Rs is arithmetic and banishes the subject from his school. “A retired person living by the ocean, just doing a little reading and writing till the end of their days – that’s the dream, right?” he tells the students gathered at a specially convened assembly. “And yet school sucks. Everybody hates it. What’s the difference? ’Rithmetic!” Like several of Novak’s protagonists, he pays the price for his honesty.
To borrow from Novak’s story “The Vague Restaurant Critic”, One More Thing is “more satisfying than a candy bar but less satisfying than love”.