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Brawny brevity

Actor's hilarious debut collection ideal for the Twitter age

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With One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, B.J. Novak -- most famous for his work on The Office as actor, writer, director and executive producer -- establishes himself as a fresh new literary voice, thanks to his wonderfully off-kilter imagination and wry, au courant observational humour.

Indeed, Novak's smart, hilarious debut is aimed squarely at the Twitter and Instagram generation.

A few critics, including the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani, have pointed out that Novak displays a finely tuned ear for the common vernacular not unlike the protagonist of the book's final story, a poet named J.C. Audetat. He ends up finding fame (but not fulfilment) as a translator of literary classics -- including a semi-controversial English-to-English translation of The Great Gatsby -- after he particularly nails it with a 21st-century update of Don Quixote.

Novak's true gift doesn't lie in his knack for writing "how people talk," but rather in his ability to put himself in the shoes of the most unlikely protagonists, from John Grisham -- whose latest bestseller goes to print with a truly unfortunate working title -- to the man who authored America's most beautiful, but most bastardized, math problem: "A man leaves Chicago at 12 p.m. on a train..."

In The Rematch, he imagines an obsessed hare as he finally faces off against the tortoise who ruined his life in an "athletic humiliation on an unprecedented scale." In No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg, we meet a guy who puts off a visit to his grandmother in heaven due to the overwhelming number of live music options that lie beyond the pearly gates.

A keen observer of the human condition, Novak recognizes we live on the Internet. Wikipedia Brown and the Case of the Missing Bicycle sends up the time-sucking Internet black holes we all find ourselves in. "'Wait, let's not get distracted,' said Sally. 'Every time we talk to Wikipedia Brown, we get distracted. We spend hours and hours with him, and always forget what we were supposed to investigate in the first place.' "

It's poignant, too; The Man Who Posted Pictures of Everything He Ate is a comment on isolation despite our hyper-connectivity, while One of These Days, We Have To Do Something About Willie deals with the challenges of staging an intervention based on troubling Facebook posts, a reminder that nobody's life is as it seems.

The book is punctuated with shorter musings. Kindness Among Cakes is a two-liner:

CHILD: Why does carrot cake have the best icing?
MOTHER: Because it needs the best icing.

Some might view these as unfinished, underdeveloped thoughts, but they offer a glimpse into a comedy writer's creative process. One gets the feeling that they've stumbled upon a raw, unfiltered idea for a comedy bit, hastily scribbled on a bedside napkin in the middle of the night.

There's a snap-crackle-and-pop spontaneity to Novak's prose; his gems are never buffed to a sheen. And in an era in which comedy careers are launched 140 characters at a time, he understands the value of economy. Brevity is the soul of wit, and all that.

Still, Novak shows real promise as a long-form fiction writer. One More Thing's pièce de résistance is a story called Kellogg's (or: The Last Wholesome Fantasy of the Middle-School Boy). It's about a kid who wins $100,000 in a box of contraband Frosted Flakes (his parents are the agave-syrup type) -- only to learn that claiming his prize might have dire consequences.

Some stories are stronger -- and, yes, funnier -- than others, but on the whole, this is an incredibly strong debut from an exciting new voice.

 

Jen Zoratti is an arts and life reporter at the Free Press.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 G6

History

Updated on Saturday, February 22, 2014 at 11:07 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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