How entertaining is B.J. Novak? With One More Thing, the standup comic, scriptwriter and actor (best known for his work on The Office), takes his talents to the page in 64 fresh, short, offbeat and often hilarious stories, many of which involve updating classics for satirical effect — whether with a rematch between the tortoise and the hare, or by replacing detective Encyclopedia Brown from children's literature with Wikipedia Brown, who is hopelessly distracted by tangential subjects. In the book's longer, more fully developed tales, Novak shows us what he's capable of — inventive ideas, guffaw-inducing humor and some real heart. The margins of my review copy are so festooned with exclamation points — indicating points of surprise and delight — they look like some sort of vertical Morse code.
But One More Thing is unfortunately padded with way too many things. While several of the shorter sketches are charmingly whimsical, few have the impact of either flash fiction or the aphoristic, often Zen-koan-like concision of someone like Lydia Davis. Too many feel like the sorts of throwaway ideas that are briefly explored during brainstorming sessions: musings about the need for a new, benign, renamed Hitler, or a running joke about down markets that feel sad. The result is a collection that would have been much stronger with many fewer things.
My advice is to resist the urge to flip to the shortest stories first (shared by Novak himself, he confesses in his amusing "Discussion Questions") and head for the more substantive tales. "Kellogg's (or: The Last Wholesome Fantasy of a Middle-School Boy)," is a particularly delicious flight of imagination about an 11-year-old boy who, in winning a cereal box sweepstakes, discovers his real father's identity. With its telling subtitle providing an extra twist, the jumping-off point of this story about fate is the notion, often toyed with by adolescents just beginning to view their parents with more critical eyes, that surely, somehow, they must have landed with the wrong family. One thing is certain: Never has the substitution of agave syrup for chocolate sauce been used to greater comic effect.
A recurrent, bittersweet theme is how far people will go in their desperate search for true love. "Sophia," a quirky confessional tale about the first sex robot equipped with artificial intelligence, shows off Novak's terrific ear. Sophia's owner returns the luscious bot because, programmed to fulfill his deepest desires, she falls in love with him — which is not what he was looking for in a sex toy. "I love you! I've never met anyone like you," a weeping Sophia tells him. "Come on," he says, channeling both David Sedaris and Woody Allen. "You've never met anyone besides me." Her response is dead on: " 'I know, right?' She laughed and coughed at the same time. 'It's so crazy. But I do love you! Oh my God, it's such a relief just to say that! Like, a scary relief, if that even makes sense?!' "
Novak's Harvard English and Spanish major bona fides come through in wry stories about retooling seminal works of world literature for today's readers. In "J.C. Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote," a would-be poet finds an alternate route to literary fame by translating classics into accessible vernacular English. Quotes from prominent critics' gushing reviews of these audacious new editions — "Audetat blows the cookie crumbs off Proust" — are absolutely hilarious, but Novak undercuts his story by unnecessarily spelling out Audetat's not-so-little secret well after readers have figured it out.
As in David Sedaris' modern-day fables, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, a surprising number of these stories proceed from absurdity to moral lessons, such as "slow and steady wins the race, till truth and talent claim their place," in "The Rematch." In "The Something by John Grisham," the best-selling author discovers to his horror that his latest thriller has been published with his place-saving title. Chewing out his new editor, he confesses that one of the titles he'd been toying with was a mantra of his protagonist, "So far only goes so far." Surely, there's a lesson in there somewhere about this wildly uneven but wildly promising literary debut.