The title of actor and writer B.J. Novak's debut collection, "One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories," is a bit misleading. Only a handful of the 63 pieces in the book (64 if you count the discussion questions in the back) are short stories per se. The rest are monologues, bits, one-liners and other, less classifiable material, much of it culled from notebooks Novak kept during his eight-year run on "The Office." As with trail mix, the dried cherries are in there, but you probably shouldn't buy it if you're not a peanut fan.
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That said, they're terrific peanuts. Most know Novak from his role on "The Office" as Ryan, the temp whose face-heel turn provided some of the show's funniest moments. But Novak also penned some of the show's sharper episodes, like the toxic and brilliant "Diversity Day"; it is that Novak who appears to best advantage in "One More Thing."
The bits are mostly charming and always snackable, as are the eminently tweetable one-liners, but it would be a mistake to judge the book only on its least ambitious sallies. In the book's trailer, Novak mocked his own literary aspirations, but they are there, even if occasionally overshadowed by the zingers.
The rhythm and structures of telling jokes works both for and against Novak. Occasionally it lends an unexpectedly poignant cadence to a lovely phrase, as in "The Beautiful Girl in the Bookstore":
She waited until a morning fog of dishonesty settled over them one day, and she disappeared into it.
Say it aloud and listen: It's a metaphor with a punch line.
In "No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg," Novak plays with the conceit of an afterlife in which all of one's favorite dead musicians give free concerts night after night. With Tupac, Mozart and Miles Davis to see — well, the gag is in the title. But what makes this a short story and not a comedy sketch is the metaphorical use to which Novak puts the joke: the hint that our dear old relatives may dote on their grandchildren only because more exciting pastimes are unavailable. The idea that your grandmother would rather be shtupping Frank Sinatra in heaven than having tea and cookies with you is funny, but it's not just funny. That's the emotional ambiguity on which literary fiction thrives.
Genuine nuance is hard to come by, however, and some stories rely on more cheaply won ironies. In "Kellogg's," the long centerpiece of the book, a child wins a $100,000 prize from a box of cereal and is appalled when his parents have moral qualms about claiming the prize. The moment when a child criticizes his parents' life choices for the first time is a scary one, but one too many implausible plot twists push the story away from its emotional core and into the territory of pure thought experiment, a brain teaser in Ethics 101.
Two of the best stories showcase Novak's strengths in completely different modes. The first, "The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela," is a dirty-minded, satirical, absurdist lark in line with the "Diversity Day" episode — and one of the most daring straight-up humor pieces. Moreover, it was clearly intended to be read rather than performed, unlike some of the pieces, which feel like transcribed stand-up comedy.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is "Sophia." Using the familiar machine-in-love trope of which Spike Jonze's "Her" is the most recent example, the story explores what would happen if a guy who ordered a sexbot returned it once it started to love him. Novak has real sympathy for the commitment-phobe, suggesting that his protagonist's actions can be seen as either sociopathic or just extremely level-headed. "You meet a finite number of people in your life," says the sexbot, pleading with him to take a chance. "It feels to you like it's infinite, but it's not. I think it's the biggest thing I can see that you can't." But some infinities are more infinite than others, and on the next page, our emotionally closed-off hero speaks from experience when he tells her that the pain will fade: "No one ever believes it, I said. That's part of what the feeling is." That one of them is proven wrong doesn't take away from the validity of both claims.
Despite how little they have in common, these two stories share a voice, and it is an intriguing one that Novak may develop further. In the meantime, he has produced a book you'll want to keep on your nightstand, where it will keep you awake too long reading just one more.
Amy Gentry is a writer living in Austin, Texas. She has a doctorate degree in English and writes a weekly style column called The Good Eye.
"One More Thing"
By B.J. Novak, Knopf, 276 pages, $24.95
Novak will appear Feb. 24 at UP Comedy Club. Visit upcomedyclub.com for details.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun