My high school English and Creative Writing teacher always introduced her Walt Whitman unit with a reading of “A Noiseless Patient Spider” and the story of how she cried when she first read this poem. At that heartbreaking moment of her youth, she said, she understood that she lacked the gift to find or voice poignancy in the insignificant and everyday such as Whitman saw in a spider spinning its web. She cried not for the poem itself, but because reading it made her realize she could never be a poet.
One More Thing made me realize I could never be a writer.
B.J. Novak’s literary debut is a remarkable collection of short stories. In under three pages each, Novak’s humorous prose ditties achieve tremendous, astonishing depth. The author’s shrewd imagination delivers a diversity of narratives as compelling in their melancholy as in their wit, each climaxing with a punch to the gut nonchalantly administered while looking the other way. One More Thing reminds you that storytelling is a craft, of which Novak proves himself a true master.
Many readers will recognize the author from his roles in NBC’s The Office, Quentin Tarantino’s World War II fantasy Inglorious Basterds, Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, and, most recently, Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks. An accomplished comedic actor, Novak has long put his talents to work behind the camera as well: writing, directing, and serving as executive producer for many of the same projects in which he starred. The success of Novak’s transition into literature lies not only in his break from television and film but rather in the translation of the same wit between the distinct media: much like a popular television program slyly incorporates recurring cues or background cameos as wink to its serial viewers, Novak artfully inserts hints of One More Thing’s different stories into the subtleties of one another’s, so that the brief appearance of the protagonist of one story as the momentary interlocutor in another becomes the highest point of humor in the book overall.
And the stories are plenty funny on their own. Novak captures the cultural pulse of his generation with references that one hopes will be lost on those to come (for we will certainly seem all the more ridiculous to our descendents if such trends and idols are exhumed), like The Man Who Posted Pictures of Everything He Ate or the “lost” transcript of a Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela, hosted by Jeffrey Ross dressed as Honey Boo Boo Child and featuring Sisqó and Pauly D. Amidst a host of purely fictional, anonymous characters, John Grisham struggles to preserve equanimity upon discovering that his latest acclaimed novel has been grossly misnamed; Elvis tours as an impersonation of himself to avoid watching his later career destroy his own legacy; Johnny Depp impulsively flouts death to impress a bus of Los Angeles tourists; an argument ensues between Chris Hansen and his daughter over attending a Justin Bieber concert. Novak’s delicate irreverence for public figures casts them with empathy, developing satirical personae that ponder their subjects’ bare humanity.
Indeed, the sharp reminder of my own literary deficiencies is Novak’s ability to find something human in everything, considering even the self-esteem of carrot cake and the emotional toll on the market from its oscillating ups and downs. Gliding just under each story’s glibness is a comfortingly honest evocation of the twenty-first century’s zeitgeist of isolation and the tender simplicity of love. Novak writes with a clear understanding of what the reader will enjoy, what they will connect to, what will make them laugh… You find a piece of yourself in every story: in the helpless lovesickness of a miraculously intelligent sex robot and in the latent regret of the man who selfishly returned her; in the trampled dignity of the Hare intent on a rematch against the Tortoise; in the petty jealousies and alternating pride and impatience confessed into his primordial diary by The Man Who Invented the Calendar; in the responses of a focus group after testing a roller coaster designed to emulate life itself.
As a collection, One More Thing is appropriately dedicated “To the Reader,” because these stories are so intimately universal in both their profundity and their bizarreness. They captivate their audience with specific moments and yet, in their skilled understatement, extend comfortably beyond the confines of the page. Throughout, One More Thing is relentlessly clever, propelling itself by the absurdities of reality and the reality of the absurd, through the perspective of characters who utter truth in utter nonsense and nonsense in their truths. In this stunning first literary work by B.J. Novak, America may have finally found its Etgar Keret.
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.