IT'S NO SECRET that The Office's BJ Novak got seven figures from Knopf to write two books. When it happened, everyone kept repeating four words: "seven figures" and "Woody Allen." Novak's first book, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, was supposed to resemble Woody Allen's early New Yorker comedy pieces.
Many of the short pieces in One More Thing do resemble the sort of exploratory jokes that Allen used to excel at. Many are not stories: "Strange News" is a sharp piece of satire on cutesy news media, while "The Literalist's Love Poem" is an absurd one-two punch that resembles Steve Martin. But the majority are narratives couched in warm, open humor: Novak sends To Catch a Predator host Chris Hansen and his daughter to a Justin Bieber concert, imagines Elvis after faking his death, and writes a sequel to "The Tortoise and the Hare."
Reading some of these, there's a feeling that they move in opposite directions. They want to be jokes, but they also want to be character-driven short stories; they lean into literary fiction, but not far enough.
In one of the most inscrutable curveballs, Novak refers to the classic Borges piece, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." Novak's story "JC Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote" is similar, but more grounded in traditional fiction than in Borges' lofty gaming of the systems of writing. It's not similar enough to require the nod in the title, yet there it is, daring you to figure it out.
There are more than 60 "stories" here, and many of them are jokes fleshed out just enough to fall beyond the parameters of a joke, but not enough to really become a story. These are likely hilarious when read aloud, but on the page, they're flat.
The best pieces are the ones where he lets the joke go. "A Good Problem to Have," for instance, starts with a funny concept: What if the dude who originated the math problem that begins, "Two trains leave their stations..." started demanding credit and compensation? From that conceit, Novak gracefully and gradually turns that guy from exasperated punch-line-in-waiting to rounded, sympathetic character.
The funniest stories, on the other hand, are the ones that don't obviously start as jokes. In "Dark Matter," a nameless narrator pressures a scientist into telling him the truth about dark matter, only to get distracted and not hear it. The narrator's voice is bristly and unexpected, like a less extreme George Saunders character. Novak's ear for speech is impeccable—years of TV writing and acting probably ensure that. The prose of the stories in One More Thing is never beautiful, but that's because it's so natural. It's honestly spoken—every line is loveably, laughably human.