Novak’s debut book falls short

Posted March 19, 2014


“One More Thing”
By B.J. Novak

B.J. Novak was a celebrity before he wrote ‘One More Thing,’ a collection of 63 fictional stories. He was a writer and actor on all nine seasons of NBC’s “The Office,” played in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks, and even dabbled in stand-up comedy.

On Feb. 4, the book’s release date, throngs of excited readers purchased the book. Not because they felt compelled as they would have if J.K. Rowling had released another Harry Potter book, but because readers believed in Novak’s potential for fiction based on his past work in comedy and English literature degree from Harvard University.

“One More Thing” has received a lot of attention. Novak’s longtime friend, former “Office” co-star, and producer of “The Mindy Project,” Mindy Kaling appeared in the book’s black-and-white French noir trailer skit (which was then written about on multiple entertainment blogs). Pop-star Katy Perry hyped Novak’s stories on Twitter to her 50 million followers (Novak, of course, retweeted her recommendation to his 577,000 followers). And even reviewers from The Daily Beast, The Hollywood Reporter, and The New Yorker all seemed to agree that Novak’s book was funny. The Washington Post’s Jen Chaney called it “consistently hilarious.”

The book, however, fell short of every expectation. At times the stories were excruciatingly specific. Not to reveal an important theme, it seemed, but to flaunt Novak’s ability to string together polysyllabic words (even irrelevantly).

In “The Something by John Grisham,” the location of where the bread was baked is named for no reason (the main character of Novak’s story is chewing on a piece of toast as he fetches the morning paper). In the first line of “Julie and the Warlord,” a woman, Julie, has been drinking “complicated cocktails” and while the use of alliteration is duly noted by any ninth grader studying Romeo and Juliet, cocktails are, by nature, complicated drinks. The adjective is superfluous.

But the book does make you laugh. Sometimes it’s more of an acknowledgment that a certain point is clever (like the unexpected reappearance of characters like Arush in the stories that seemed at first to be unrelated). At other times the humor urges you to read excerpts out loud to anyone really in your immediate presence (assuming no children were in the room). And in rare moments (usually the last line of his stories) the book made you laugh out loud.

Novak’s stories that were intended to be lighthearted or funny came across as lighthearted and funny. They are the backbone and highlight of the book. “The Man Who Invented the Calendar” was an entertaining (albeit fictional) explanation of how one man invented the Gregorian calendar and the nonsensical reasons for naming months and why they were randomly 30 or 31 days.

However, the longer stories that tried to convey a deeper meaning, revealed Novak’s lack of experience in fiction writing. Most reviews rave about “Kellogg’s,” the story about a little boy who wins a prize from a cereal box that destroys his family. It is 23 pages long and yet much of the plot and character development is rushed: the protagonist is too smart to be even the smartest fifth-grader and no taxi-driver would ever provide a 10-year-old a ride to a town an hour-and-a-half away nor does Novak explain how a 10-year-old could afford an hour-and-a-half taxi ride.

Certain stories also came across as cliché. The last line in his first story, “The Rematch,” about the old-time tale of the hare and the tortoise racing again ends with “slow and steady wins the race but truth and talent ultimately prevail.” His diction is simplistic and with a not-funny adage to end, the story does not motivate readers to keep reading when they are expecting the fast-paced wit and humor from Novak’s Twitter feed and past performances on television and film.

The women in his stories also tended to be less intelligent and more gullible than their male counterparts in an almost-offensive, almost-sexist manner. In “Julie and the Warlord,” the female protagonist, Julie, is on a date with an African warlord and keeps sipping those aforementioned “complicated cocktails” unfazed as her date describes in great detail the atrocities he commits.

“The Beautiful Girl in the Bookstore,” objectifies the woman as Novak reveals her boyfriend only liked her because “she was just his favorite thing in the bookstore.” The men and boys in the stories, however, tended to be overly intelligent and self-righteous. Like mentioned before, in “Kellogg’s” a 10-year-old boy heads by himself to a town an hour and a half away to claim a $100,000 prize without his parents help.

It isn’t that the book is bad. Overall, it is enjoyable. But the media hype by other celebrities and reviewers is unwarranted (this very well might be Novak’s first unfavorable review). It is Novak’s byline that motivates his fans to read his book, not his talent for fiction writing.

Those who aren’t familiar with Novak’s work and looking for a strong collection of short fiction should read Miranda July’s “No One Belongs Here More Than You” instead. July’s short stories reach the intimacy and insight of the human condition that Novak sought to reach but didn’t. While truth and talent ultimately prevailed for the hare in Novak’s story, his book very blatantly lacked both.

  • “One More Thing”
  • By B.J. Novak
  • Knopf
  • 276 pages
  • $27.50