One More Thing

B.J. Novak
  • Review
By – February 18, 2014

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 Things 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.

Discussion Questions