There’s a video on Youtube of BJ Novak telling the story of “Wikipedia Brown and the Case of the Missing Bicycle.” It’s pretty grainy and the sound quality isn’t that great… and I’ve watched it enough times that when I reached the story in Novak’s first story collection, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, I could hear his voice in my head and could probably have recited the story nearly by heart myself.
Maybe that’s a sign I’ve followed BJ Novak’s career too closely, along with the fact that I recognised a few of the collection’s shorter “stories” as originally being from his Twitter account, but ever since I started watching The Office and Ryan Howard became one of my favourite characters on the show even in his most hate-able moments (that blond hair), I’ve been a big fan. So in fairness, this is a pretty biased review, as I already knew his sense of humour and writing style was in my wheelhouse.
Regardless, I loved this book, and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning to finish reading it. Every time I thought “I’ll stop after this story, save the rest for the next day,” I found myself reading another. Some were longer, while others were only a few lines (for example, “The Literalist’s Love Poem”: Roses are rose. Violets are violet. I love you.). The thing that I found most engaging about the collection was the tone.
While most of the stories had at least one moment of laugh-out-loud humour, they weren’t all funny the way you might expect. Many of them are bittersweet in an almost surreal way, like the story of the boy who discovers the identity of his real father when he tries to collect a prize won from a cereal box, or the story about the couple who explore the multitude of concerts performed each night in heaven. In some ways they call to mind the best episodes of The Office, which Novak wrote for as well as playing the show’s temp-turned-boss-turned-felon-turned-temp, the episodes where we see that Michael Scott isn’t just a slapstick wannabe comedian but a caring, lonely guy. Maybe it’s lazy to compare this book to The Office—I’m sure most reviews of it have—but it demonstrates that Novak is great at the best kind of comedy, finding humour in sadness and sadness in humour.
Of course, this isn’t to say that all of the stories are poignant. Some are equally surreal but in an utterly ridiculous way, such as “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela” and “If I had a Nickel” (in which a man lays out a business plan based on “if I had a nickel for every time I spilled a cup of coffee”). But these are clever as well, and the ones based around popular culture (like ” Comedy Central Roast”) don’t fall in to the trap of many topical works where the author becomes too intent on showing their own knowledge of celebrities to actually tell a story.
A few of the stories fell flat for me, of course, as in most short story collections. When I inevitably go back to reread the book I’ll probably only skim through “‘Rithmetic” and “Closure” and one or two more. But others, like “Missed Connection: Grocery spill at 21st and 6th 2:30 pm on Wednesday” and J.C. Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote” I can see myself returning to again and again. And “Wikipedia Brown,” of course.
P.s. The book has a book trailer starring Novak and his BFF/coworker/soulmate/whatever Mindy Kaling. It’s hilarious.