Occasionally, an actor becomes convinced that publishing some fiction is a good idea. Frequently the result is embarrassing; the change of form factors out much of what drew the public in the first place, and without the proper valence, the appeals toward artistic experience can fall flat. (See the at best politely-received story collections by Molly Ringwald or James Franco).
Luckily for B.J. Novak, known primarily for his role as the impish Ryan Howard on the NBC’s long-running The Office, the equation is different. The goal is comedy rather than literary profundity, and funny is funny, on screen or on the page. And Novak knows funny.
His debut fiction collection entitled One More Thing is a playful and often hilarious assortment the tone of which is perhaps best described by listing a few of the titles: No One Goes to Heaven To See Dan Fogelberg, Julie and the Warlord, The Man Who Posted Pictures of Everything He Ate, Marie’s Stupid Boyfriend, Welcome to Camp Fantastic for Gifted Teens. The collection is more like a published notebook than a story collection; some of the entries aren’t more than a few lines, with the same length and import as a knock-knock joke. There are also two-pagers that would be at home in the New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs section (where The Man Who Invented the Calendar first appeared,) and several full-length stories in which Novak has the space to sketch out some vaguely philosophical musings.
Despite its frequent laughs, One More Thing should not be filed in the humor section. Especially in the later stories, Novak makes a play for a certain sort of seriousness. At times, the influence of the short fiction of David Foster Wallace is abundantly clear, in the way in which the inner lives of figures from the public discourse are used to make a point about the hollowness of that discourse or the recursive self-reflection of modern life in general. (Wallace, sadly enough, never got to write about text messaging, with its odd societal rules of which Novak is a master.)
Take this passage from Chris Hanson at the Justin Bieber Concert, in which the host of To Catch a Predator explains to his daughter why he’d rather not escort her to see her favorite pop singer, because everyone would assume that he’s on the job. “I go to the Justin Bieber concert, and everybody’s looking at me. You know why? They’re looking at me trying to figure out who I’m looking at. So everybody’s staring at me. And I have to do them the courtesy of not looking back at them, because what they don’t realize is that if I look at them back for as much as a split second, then everybody’s gonna stare at them for the next two hours.”
That Novak would have an interest in examining the scrutiny of celebrity is not surprising. But he frequently under-reaches. The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela contains a dais-worth of familiar characters all but begging to be satirized, but the story never rises above a vehicle with which to tell jokes. The gags are certainly funny, including the big one at the end, but the bolting together of the austere Mandela and the somewhat less austere Gilbert Gottfried and cohort does not by itself create the sort of ironic resonance that the story deserves. “Wouldn’t it be funny if” is a great place to start — but not to stop.
The charge “not as good as David Foster Wallace” is one that could be leveled at almost any satirist working today. The fact that the book deserves such a comparison is proof of one thing, though: One More Thing is the flawed work of a talented writer, not the readable work of a talented actor.
Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.