One More Thing by B. J. Novak
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, 288 pp
Reviewed by Winnie Khaw
B. J. Novak has written a funny book full of famous people (Nelson Mandela, Mark Twain), celebrities (Dan Fogelberg, Johnny Depp)--though the two are sometimes admittedly interchangeable--a sex robot, anthropomorphized creatures/things (Wikipedia Brown, the hare of “the hare and the tortoise fame”) the occasional random weird person (the Impatient Billionaire, the Ambulance Driver) named after his or her most prominent feature or current occupation, etc.
This book is titled One More Thing and unfortunately, while this collection is to varying degrees amusing, the short stories are mostly trivial in content; the sense that Novak rushes through the beginning, middle, and end to the very, very end in order to deliver that Haha! stand-up comedy joke causes the writing to appear specious and less than thoughtful.
Read the wise, proverbial, and incidentally rhyming words in “Rematch,” involving the much maligned-hare and the much vaunted-tortoise of legendary fable: “Those who didn’t know the context ... didn’t understand the story. But those who were there for both contest knew what was so special about what they had witnessed; slow and steady wins the race, till truth and talent claim their place.”
I assume that Novak in writing the story intended to show the point of view of the hare, and to right the wrongs done against the hare by the slow-poke tortoise. Perhaps I’m overly appreciating the general intelligence of the reader, but obviously, he or she is aware that if the hare had not been so lazy, he would have won. Easily. Without a doubt. Novak is within his prerogative to re-write fables, but if he is not going to really add some insight into them, include some dimension otherwise unseen, why do it?
I think Novak does better, sometimes, in stories which do not depend on annexation of contemporary references and persons. Unless all of his stories do, and I failed to catch that insidious fact. In “Dark Matter” the character pretends to be listening to a scientist who is pretty much telling him The Formerly Unsolvable Secret of Gravitational Existence. Of course, our protagonists misses all of it, but the scientist, “eyes ... clogged up” says, “You’re the only other person in the world who knows. I can’t believe I’m not alone with this anymore.” The dramatic irony of the universe.
“The Vague Restaurant Critic” writes in his debut review the unsatisfactory line, “more satisfying than a candy bar, but less satisfying than love.” Poor guy. He should have been more specific. I say should have, because he was fired. “He did kind of care. He wished other people knew what he did,” the Vague Restaurant Critic [insert articulatory action here] wistfully. I sympathize, and succeed in understanding, I believe, what he means--after all, the genial One More Thing belongs to the candy bar side of the gigantic continuum.
In the end, with its undeniable reliance on punchlines and plots denuded of substance, B. J. Novak’s collection of some cute, some less so, short pieces is just “one more thing” to read.