I got this as an e-book from my library. Which, before we go any further, can we just take a moment and contemplate how amazing that is? There is technology that permits me to log into my library, pick a book, upload it onto my e-reader for free, and start reading. When it’s time to be returned, it takes itself off my e-reader. LIKE FUCKING INSTANT GRATIFICATION READING MAGIC.
I hate fictional short stories, and I usually make a point to avoid them. But I love B.J. Novak. I love his writing for The Office. If you were paying attention, once that show started getting bad, the only episodes that were truly hilarious credited B.J. Novak as the writer. I love Mindy Kaling and everything about their public friendship. I love his twitter. I just love him as a funny human who does things to make people laugh. So I accepted the fact that this chosen method of producing a book was fictional short stories. Fine. Whatever. I’ll read it.
It was funny. Come on. Of course it was funny. It was written by B.J. Novak. He can execute a story or a joke with what feels to the reader (or I should say to this reader) like a flawless ease.
I was laughing pretty hard by the second story, Dark Matter, where the narrator essentially describes a list of neurosis that are true of all people, involving our phones, paranoia about our friends, and our decisions. It’s funny because it’s true.
The stories, for the most part, are funny because they contain some element that’s true. Novak chooses some witty universal truth about humans that we all agree upon and inserts it into a truly absurdist story, and the reader can laugh and feel clever because they’ve identified the thing that’s funny and true. In Julie and the Warlord, a woman on a date with someone who is a Warlord finds herself connecting on abstract ideas with a guy who is clearly A WARLORD, but come on, when do you find this kind of attraction? What do you decide to do?
After awhile many of the stories started to feel like they had that same kind of formula. “This is a weird story, but that’s funny because it’s true, now get ready for the one-liner ending: ba dum ching.” (That was my drum impression. It wasn’t good, was it? Well, you got the point anyway.)
In Sophia, the Sex Robot, a story about a sex robot who falls in love with her owner, he writes, “I said I had something to say to her, which made her listen in a way that she didn’t when I simply said things without the preface. Even though the preface meant nothing, it calmed her, just as it calmed real people.” In One of These Days We Have To Do Something About Willie, “Why the fuck would a person NOT get extra strength [pain killers]?” I GET IT, NOVAK. You insert funny things about life, and I think they’re funny, too.
I read this book as a side book while I zoomed through reading two others, and I had trouble keeping my attention on it consistently given its formulaic nature, despite the fact that I laughed every time I picked it up.
While I get bored with Novak’s structure (no matter how funny the stories continued to be) he did make attempts to break it up. And when he made those attempts, he did it very well. Novak throws discussion questions in throughout the book, about who to fuck or whether someone should die – and if you thought those weren’t funny you and I shouldn’t be friends. He ties them together with discussion questions at the end of the book, one of which is, “Do you normally have discussions in response to a question that was posed by a person not participating in the discussion? Why or why not?” Touché, Novak. And agreed.
He throws in a few stories that are short poems or a few liners, and they get a quick hysterical laugh in before you dive into another actual story. I also enjoyed the occasional distraction he snuck in, such as in Kellogg’s, where he wrote, “The Battle Creek, Michigan headquarters of Kellogg’s looks like a spaceship built to look like a pyramid that was then hastily converted into a public library during a period of intergalactic peace. It looks exactly as you would hope it would look. As fun as it is to try to describe, I still recommend you look it up.” I stopped in the middle of the story and looked it up, and it was exactly as promised. I’m sure many others did, too. (You’re probably looking it up right now. I won’t take that away from you by posting the photo.)
I liked that some of his ideas connected to philosophy and abstract theories, though I can’t be sure whether or not Novak intended them as such (I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to find out he did). The chapter about a mirror for Earth causing people to behave reminded me of Foucault and Panopticism. (My former students probably would have liked reading Novak better than Foucault.) He uses a story about The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela to point out that comedy is as important as drama when it comes to knowledge, peace and happiness. This reminded me of a 30 Rock Episode where Tracy Morgan discovers that comedy is as important as awareness about poverty. People need to laugh.
I like that he threw in a small shout out to The Office, where an eight year old in one of his stories wants to go to Niagara Falls because two characters on a TV show she loves got married there. (I’m sure there were many more shout-outs I will never be aware of.)
I read a couple of other reviews that people wrote about this book, and it seems that everyone had some stories that they felt were out of place given the overall tone/structure of the book. One reviewer noted he didn’t think Heyyyyy, Rabbits was terribly funny or appropriate – this was genuinely one of my favorite stories in the book. It’s just about how to get rabbits to come into your backyard, but I couldn’t stop laughing. For me, what felt out of place and what I didn’t laugh through at all was They Kept Driving Faster and Outran the Ran. I wonder if for someone else this was their favorite story.
In any book of short stories, everyone’s going to have favorites. I actually liked Missed Connection: Grocery Spill at 21st and 6th at 2:30 pm on Wednesday which turns into a detailed story about a relationship, and The Calendar – a story about the invention of the Calendar (which included a nice jab at Daylight Savings Time). I loved Pick a Lane, One of These Days, We Have to Do Something About Willie and Wikipedia Brown.
I hated Regret is Perfectionism Plus Time, The Bravest Thing I Ever Did, The Best Thing in the World Awards, The World’s Biggest Rip-Off, and J.C. Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote (which unfortunately was the final story. I actually realized it was the last story, got annoyed, stopped in the middle, read my other book, and finished it the next night). You’re going to have favorites and some you hate as well. I bet they won’t be the same as mine.
What it comes down to is whether he wrote well and put these stories together well, and I think he did. They have something in common, even if that something is slightly formulaic. He does his best to throw in a little of something different here, a little bit of a distraction there, and to some degree it works – I genuinely liked it, I laughed, but I probably wouldn’t have bought it. Then again, if I was someone who already loved short stories, maybe I would have.
I recommend giving it a read. You will not only laugh, but you will get a chance to see how much Novak can really shine on his own. (And it IS funny because it’s true.)