All the Small Things

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Shrine Auditorium

Some people like to start conversations with “What would happen if.” What would happen if there was a black-ops team that hired out to help you get actual closure after a relationship by erasing all traces of the ex’s existence? What would happen if the guy who invented that “A train leaves Chicago at” math problem was upset that he never received adequate compensation? What would happen if you secretly won a big cash prize in a box of Frosted Flakes when you were 10 but your parents were staunchly opposed to sugar cereal- you get the idea. 

For most people, these become a running gag of conversation with the kind of friends who tolerate that sort of thing. For author B.J. Novak, famous from his work as actor and producer on The Office, they became a book of stories: One More Thing. The question is, is it any good?

Talking about little things often gets short shrift: especially from people who would rather be talking about concrete things, like that one thing from work, or football. The little things often say the biggest things about us, though, and Novak elucidates these perfectly. Like the way social media can transform us “into simpler and more easily digestible fictional characters to one another – in other words, becoming our profile pictures.” Or how you can secretly fantasize someday you will have “the combination of safety and elation knowing that every sight I see, no matter how small, is now important, because it’s shared.” The surprising lucidity of Novak’s reflections can strike a casually pitch-perfect note.

But that isn’t the best part. The best part is One More Thing is hilarious. The online blurb calls this book a “surprisingly sensitive, and startlingly original debut that signals the arrival of a brilliant new voice in American fiction” but this blurb is total sanctimonious bullshit: not because it’s untrue, per se, but because it conveys the totally wrong tone.

Anyone who regularly picks up books based on the criteria of “surprisingly sensitive” and “a brilliant new voice in American fiction” is probably going to fan themselves with their sterotypical old-woman paper fan and spit-take their morning tea all over their chain-held reading glasses. One More Thing is irreverent to the point of perfection (Literary ”Discussion Questions” include “Do you think Julie should fuck the warlord? Why or why not?”) and often turns on the philosophical ramifications of events like Grandma giving Frank Sinatra a blowjob in heaven.

The running theme here is really well-thought-out absurdity. Its stories end up having a point not because it was injected or premised at the outset but because it was always discoverable if you stopped to think about it. The best ideas, which hit a certain somehow heartbreakingly salient mark and are followed through with skill and attention (I’m thinking  “Sophia,” the best story in the collection) attain brief heights at their peak which are worthy of short-story Vonnegut.

Sometimes the stories don’t work. Then, like a sketch gone off the rails, they kind of trail off into irrelevance. The really short bits are shrug-worthy and would have been better served as tweets or blog posts. They aren’t filler in that the book isn’t short and didn’t need them – unlike funny offerings by, say, Steve Martin, which require massive fonts and cardboard-thick pages, you get your money’s worth of book in this book. It makes me wonder why weaker pieces weren’t just removed but the stories are short enough that you know something really good is just a page-turn or two away and then: it is.

Short-story Vonnegut was no joke. The buck stopped there. He was It. BJ Novak has It, sometimes. And this book shows It, sometimes. You will laugh out loud, and you will notice something important. Read it. See.

Note: No one ever pays me to review or link to any books.

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