Could be that I am the only person who started to watch “The Office” because B.J. Novak wrote a collection of short fiction.
More likely, those who watched “The Office” for years will pick up a copy of the temp’s first book because they’ve watched the show.
But I met B.J. Novak on the page, and we got to know each other through 60-someodd stories, ranging in length from a few lines to more than 20 pages.
What I learned straight off? I wanted to know more. The first story won my heart, retelling the story of the tortoise and the hare. I enjoy retellings and this one is clever, the prose tight and pacing taut (well, it is about racing, right?) and I wanted to send everyone I know a copy of this piece.
I also learned that the details matter. B.J. Novak likes the kind of story which has a different significance at the end than readers might have guessed at the start. “The first thing to know about me is that I understand the significance of everything that happened.”
And he wants readers to know that even “though I did not recognize the moment immediately for what it was, of course I understand it now”. There is an air of wisdom to even some of the shortest pieces.
But, also, sometimes individual lines are just plain funny. Like the guy who invented the calendar. And his diary entry for June includes: “Met this really cool girl Jane at a stoning.”
Readers might wonder if the author is fond of books like the boy in “The Beautiful Girl in the Bookstore” or whether is he more like the girl, who looks at the books but is more interested in the things and probably never goes into a bookstore that has only books (and no other things) in it.
Readers can’t tell. But we can tell he’s fond of stories. And he appreciates the collisions that can arise, thematically and literally.
Some stories directly intersect. The girl-who-gave-great-advice (who has her own story) also appears in “The Ambulance Driver”. And we meet the red-T-shirt wearer in “All You Have to Do” and a character meets him in “Missed Connection…”.
The title is drawn from “Sophia”, a story about the desire to say one more thing and the meaning attached to that desire. But the story isn’t really about that, but about how one copes with the loss of a love that one later decides was perfect.
A lot of these stories are like that, about ordinary things. The human condition.
Like identity (“It was strange to think that he wasn’t Elvis anymore, but it was even stranger to think that he ever had been”) and time passing (When you’re young, you think everything you do is just the beginning. But when you’re old, no matter who you are, you realized you only did one or two things”).
And war (In that way, it wasn’t too unlike the game of bridge”) and the death of a spouse (She walked alone to her favorite bar, ordered her favorite drink, and stirred it as she waited for the rest of her life to approach).
And the cycles of life (in “The Market Was Down” and “MONSTER: The Roller Coaster”. The perils of making a living (or not) as a writer (in “The Something by John Grisham” and “Angel Echeverria, Comediante Superpopular”).
Some contain fictional characters; others contain Nelson Mandela and Johnny Depp, Elvis and Neil Patrick Harris, Confucius and Tony Robbins.
The pieces read like elements of a comedy routine. These are not short stories like Carver’s or Chaon’s, Baxter’s or Cheever’s.
In the moment when I reached for One More Thing, I thought the stories would be like Patrick Somerville’s or Alex Leslie’s; I didn’t recognize the collection for what it was, but of course I understand it now.
I am the girl in the bookstore who looks askance at the things and wishes that the merchandisers would have displayed more books instead. But, as it turns out, I also enjoy “The Office”; I just hadn’t watched it yet.
Have you been reading any short stories lately? Is this collection on your TBR already/now?