One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories
Actor B.J. Novak of “The Office” fame experiments with a wide range of shapes and forms for ideas in his first collection of fiction, ONE MORE THING: Stories and Other Stories. He is fresh and quirky --- wonderful traits by and large --- and what the book lacks in depth and follow-through is more than balanced by surprise and imagination.
“The Impatient Billionaire and the Mirror for Earth” is a fine example of the twists and turns a story may take. The title is accurate. (In such short short pieces, titles are imperative.) An extremely demanding billionaire commissions a mirror the size of the earth; it comes in $700 million over budget and 36 months late, but it’s magnificent. The installation of the mirror changes the world for the better (at least for the Brazilian hemisphere, as you can’t have both Brazil and China, you know) as people pay attention to what they are doing and how they look doing it. The result? People improve. Years go by, and the billionaire is fretting one night after his air conditioning has broken. He does not want to awaken his wife to call in the repair folks. So he goes to the window, picks up a pair of binoculars, and sees himself in the mirror. How cool is that? Having a mirror the size of bejesus and waving at yourself in red pajamas is consolation on a hot night.
"Breathlessly, Novak runs with all sorts of story lines and situations, and creates sketchy characters who are perceptive, witty and say enough."
In another story, the greatest ambulance driver ever quits his job after asking for some life direction from a girl who always gives the best advice. [The unnamed girl is one of a handful of recurring characters in the collection, and her advice actually takes the form of two questions; their own answers always satisfy those asking, and her reputation is platinum.] The driver becomes a ridiculously popular singer, and he makes a world of music. And he is that world.
One of the stories is just three sentences yet still manages to create an entire scene, perhaps even an entire story. The reader pictures young men, café booths, maybe a shrug. Simple lines of dialogue convey an interest in cute young women. More does not seem to be necessary.
“Kellogg’s” looks into trust, choices and passion --- topics a young boy had not bargained for when he went looking for a $100,000 prize in Kellogg’s Corn Flakes cereal boxes. The story begins as a third-person account of a shopping trip with a boy and his mother; somewhere in the middle, the narrator identifies himself as the boy, takes over the story, and acknowledges the coming upheaval and clarification in his life. The irony of how he discovers his parents’ secrets and the choices he now must make is lost on neither him nor the reader.
Novak explores the random ideas that pop inside a mind. What if there was a rematch between the hare and the tortoise? What if a sex robot had more genuine feelings about love than her purchaser? What if the originator of the math problem about a train leaving Chicago at 12pm and a train leaving Cleveland at 1pm, and when they would meet, comes into an elementary school and discusses his disgust at the proliferation of the problem and his philosophy of life with the kids?
Breathlessly, Novak runs with all sorts of story lines and situations, and creates sketchy characters who are perceptive, witty and say enough. The breakneck pace works for many of the stories --- there’s something insistent about finishing one and starting another --- but not in all. Some are undercooked and need more time in Novak’s amazing oven. But what delight in the surprises and laughter of the rest.
Reviewed by Jane Krebs on February 14, 2014