Book Talk: ONE MORE THING, by B.J. Novak

One More Thing stories BJ Novak
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories

B.J. Novak (Twitter)
Knopf (February 2014), Hardcover (ISBN 0385351836 / 9780385351836)
Fiction (short stories), 288 pages
A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (2/14/2014)Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.

Actor/writer B.J. Novak (The Office) bucks the linked-short-stories trend in his first fiction collection, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, but that doesn’t mean the pieces here have nothing that unites them. While they lack recurring characters or common narrative threads, they have a consistency in tone, a similar worldview, and–perhaps not surprisingly, given Novak’s background as a comedic writer and performer–a shared sense of humor.
Some of One More Thing‘s strongest stories are driven by character. “One of These Days” reunites three college friends with a mission to “do something” about the fourth member of their old group; a young boy is puzzled when his parents won’t let him claim the prize he wins from a cereal company in “Kellogg’s”; “J.C. Audetat” finds that his poetry is best expressed in translating the words of other writers. Others stand out conceptually: the hare tells his side of the story in “The Rematch” with the tortoise, and love always wins “The Best Thing in the World Awards”…except for that one time.
Many of One More Thing‘s short stories are very short–several run only a few lines–and even the longest barely reach twenty pages. However, word count has little to do with what makes them work.
Novaks’ writing is intelligent but doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard to be clever, and I was struck by a touch of sweetness mixed into the funny–there’s a sense of compassion toward its subjects that gives the funny lines unexpected depth. Quite frankly, I expected more snark, and I’m glad Novak confounded that expectation.
I’m not generally a short-fiction fan, but this was “potato-chip reading”–I kept thinking I’d have just a few, but then I’d dig further and further into this engaging, imaginative collection of stories that are difficult to read just one at a time.

A boy wins a $100,000 prize in a box of Frosted Flakes—only to discover that claiming the winnings might unravel his family. A woman sets out to seduce motivational speaker Tony Robbins—turning for help to the famed motivator himself. A new arrival in Heaven, overwhelmed with options, procrastinates over a long-ago promise to visit his grandmother. We meet Sophia, the first artificially intelligent being capable of love, who falls for a man who might not be ready for it himself; a vengeance-minded hare, obsessed with scoring a rematch against the tortoise who ruined his life; and post-college friends who try to figure out how to host an intervention in the era of Facebook. Along the way, we learn why wearing a red T-shirt every day is the key to finding love, how February got its name, and why the stock market is sometimes just . . . down.

Finding inspiration in questions from the nature of perfection to the icing on carrot cake, One More Thing has at its heart the most human of phenomena: love, fear, hope, ambition, and the inner stirring for the one elusive element just that might make a person complete. Across a dazzling range of subjects, themes, tones, and narrative voices, the many pieces in this collection are like nothing else, but they have one thing in common: they share the playful humor, deep heart, sharp eye, inquisitive mind, and altogether electrifying spirit of a writer with a fierce devotion to the entertainment of the reader.

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