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Review: One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, by B.J. Novak

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>>Published: February 2014

>>Finally got around to it: April 2014

“So, do you get to travel a lot?” asked Julie.

“Not as much as I’d like. Now and then we’ll reach some cease-fire, after some especially big massacre, and things get quiet for a bit. That’s what allowed me to take some time off, travel, meet you, stuff like that. Oh, I meant to say: you look even better in person than in your profile picture.”

“Oh… thank you.”

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to tell you that. Nice surprise. Rare it goes in that direction.”

“Ha. Well, thanks. Um, same. Don’t let that go to your head.”

“Thanks. So… Lost my train of thought.”

“Cease-fires?”

“Right! So, you know cease-fires—they never stick.”

“Yes, I think I saw something about that on Jon Stewart. That must be frustrating.”

“It is! Thank you, Julie. That’s exactly the right word,” said the warlord. “It’s very frustrating.”

“Flourless chocolate cake,” said the waitress.

“Thank you,” said Julie and the Warlord at the same time.

“Can I get you anything else? Another drink?”

“I really shouldn’t,” said Julie. “Are you okay to drive, by the way?”

“I have a driver,” said the warlord.

Julie ordered a fourth and final cocktail.

***

Of B.J. Novak’s talent, there is little question—the stand-up comic wrote for, acted, and even directed and executive produced the American version of The Office, and has also acted in both Inglorious Basterds (where I first knew him from), the recently released Saving Mr. Banks, and the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Now, however, he’s dipping his toes into the world of short fiction with his debut collection, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, and the results are a decidedly mixed bag.

One More Thing collects sixty-four (!) of the author’s stories, including a few items that border on poetry, some flash fiction interspersed here and there between the larger narratives, and at least one direct authorial address (not to mention discussion questions at the book’s close). Content-wise, Novak’s stories run the gamut from deconstructing fables and turns of phrase to celebrity commentary and even the odd musing on the afterlife. All told it is a strange mix of stories whereupon the Stock Market is anthropomorphized (via depression), two-line flash fiction reveals the stark inadequacies of carrot cake, and we’re even introduced to the creator of the most widely re-purposed math problem in existence.

“The Rematch” is a dark take-down of the old adage “slow and steady wins the race,” revealing an over-the-hill hare desperately wanting a rematch to show that goddamn tortoise his win was a fluke. “No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg” posits a heaven I never expected but one I’d love to see, in which all great performers put on nightly concerts for the assembled afterlife population. And “’Rithmetic,” which is one of the more amusing tales in the collection, sees a burned-out public school principal calling an assembly to announce the expelling of math from the curriculum—because fuck math, that’s why.

The stories “Julie and the Warlord,” “If I Had a Nickel,” “Just an Idea,” and “A New Hitler” are, I felt, the strongest in the collection. “Julie and the Warlord” explores the (fairly obvious) themes of expectation versus reality, and differences in individual experiences and how they not only act as commentary on the divide between material and ethical wealth, but how much of the respective cost is taken for granted by both sides—told, naturally, through the first-date conversation between a warlord from the Congo and a single woman from the United States. “If I Had a Nickel” tears apart the colloquialism from the perspective of a young entrepreneur taking into consideration the cost-benefit analysis of, in this case, actually receiving a nickel for every cup of spilled coffee, and the likelihood, or lack thereof, of being able to make a living from such an endeavour. “Just an Idea” is a fairly trenchant knock at the world of contemporary art, specifically that of Damien Hirst and his proclivity for works of art that cost obscene amounts of money to merely exist (I’m looking at you, For the Love of God). And “A New Hitler,” well, that was just a delightful piece of flash-fiction absurdism.

All is not right and rosy, though, as some of the stories are unfortunately less than stellar. “Kellogg’s (or: The Last Wholesome Fantasy of the Middle-School Boy)” is a bit of a plodding mess of one boy’s true parentage told via the vehicle of a one hundred thousand dollar cereal box prize. And the stories “Chris Hansen at the Justin Bieber Concert,” “Quantum Nonlocality and the Death of Elvis Presley,” and “Johnny Depp, Fate, and the Double-Decker Hollywood Tour Bus” all target the low-hanging fruit of their respective icons with differing tales of recognition and constructed public personas.

Most damning, however, and what keeps me from recommending this book, is its near-universal lack of ambiguity. While Novak’s technical capabilities are not in question, his confidence as a storyteller is another matter entirely. Novak refuses to trade in ambiguity—in nearly every story, no matter its length, the last sentence and/or paragraph undoes all the goodwill previously established by taking readers by the hand and guiding them, blunt force trauma-style, to the intended meaning behind whatever metaphor or analogues had been established. Frustratingly, this has the likely unintentional effect of stripping the symbolism of all its worth, which leaves most of the stories feeling rather empty by their conclusions. Two of the more egregious examples of this are the stories “MONSTER: The Roller Coaster” and “Closure.” The former uses the peaks and valleys of a roller coaster to really drive the ups and downs of daily life, while the latter starts strong with a decent killers-for-hire premise offering romantically scorned individuals a sense of finality in their relationships, but then in the end goes so far as to congratulate the protagonist on being the first person to ever truly achieve closure. In these cases and so many more, Novak’s stories would be that much more effective if they simply stopped five feet from the finish line and allowed the reader to figure out their meaning on their own.

As best I can tell, the stories collected within One More Thing have not been previously published, as is the case with most collections of short fiction by established authors. That becomes more and more clear throughout as the aforementioned lack of ambiguity/restraint is made increasingly apparent, oftentimes distracting me from whatever colour or imagery had been peppered throughout. These very much feel like first-timer short stories—not that Novak is a first-time writer, which he clearly is not, but short fiction requires a different muscle than long-form fiction or screenwriting. It survives and thrives on its ability to say more with less, leaning on its imagery and its metaphor to sell whatever point the author hopes to make instead of stepping into the spotlight and addressing the audience directly, which it feels more often than not is exactly what Novak is doing in this collection. One More Thing is a good effort marred by an unfortunate need to over-explain.

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