by K.M. Zahrt
B.J. Novak, who is most known for his work on the U.S. version of the TV series, The Office, has enough name recognition to turn the heads of bookstore patrons, and he turned as many heads when his book deal was announced at a value exceeding seven figures. The first in a two-book agreement, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories is a hodgepodge collection of short fiction adapted from Novak’s series of popular stand-up shows. The name recognition and the buzz from the comedy shows will likely justify Alfred A. Knopf’s investment in the work. But the question is: Does the work itself justify that value on its own?
Currently on Goodreads, with more than 1,000 ratings, One More Thing has an average score of 3.80 out of 5. I think that is an accurate assessment of this collection. If I had rated every piece on its own on a scale of one to five, I would probably be left with an average score of 3.80.
At times, Novak demonstrates remarkable critical depth with pieces like “The Ghost of Mark Twain” and “J. C. Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote.” Many of the tales use a style of humor that could be traced back to Twain. For example, “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela” could fall somewhere between the diaries of Adam and Eve and “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg” in Twain’s canon. Similarly, Novak’s “The Man Who Invented the Calendar” has exactly the kind of premise for fiction that Twain would have used. In this vein, I would also include stories like “Dark Matter” in which a nosy museum patron discovers that a Ph.D candidate secretly understands dark matter.
Some pieces are pleasantly clever, such as “The Rematch” — a sequel to the story of the tortoise and the hare — “The Vague Restaurant Critic,” and “The World’s Biggest Rip-Off.” And some pieces are downright funny, such as “Confucius at Home” — a depiction of Confucius scribing his maxims (which I read aloud to the wife, with or without her permission) — and “Wikipedia Brown and the Case of the Missing Bicycle.”
However, many pieces fall flat. Pieces, like “The Beautiful Girl in the Bookstore,” I read and re-read to try to make heads or tails of, for comedic value or otherwise, without success. Some of them seemed unfinished — spare and incomplete anecdotes that should continue to be forged into full stories — such as “Great Writers Steal” and “A New Hitler.” Others simply didn’t work for me, like “Bingo,” “Kate Moss,” and “The Bravest Thing I Ever Did.”
In sum, I found enough to enjoy in Novak’s One More Thing to justify the Barnes & Noble gift card I spent on it, and I think most fans of Novak or The Office will come to the same conclusion. But to answer the question: Would the book be worth a seven-figure deal based on its merit alone? Probably not. Let me recommend two collections of short fiction that didn’t get that deal from authors who don’t have Novak’s name recognition that are equally – if not more – worthy: Seth Fried’s The Great Frustration and Adam Levin’s Hot Pink.