B. J. Novak
Genre: Short Stories, Fiction, Humor
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
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I have a cosmic-level aversion to short stories. For some reason, they have always felt wrong to me, sitting smugly in that vast region between poem and novel. They always seemed to be more about the message and less about the importance of that message (esp. to different characters).
This book didn't change my life, but it is one heck of a trip, and brings my aversion level down to Earth.
Most of Novak's pieces in this collection rely heavily on shock value, bizarre stretches of thought, or an endless list of What Ifs. It makes for a set of laughs for those receptive to that type of humor. Think of long, detailed Eddie Izzard sets, just with more twists and less French.
While most of the pieces seemed intended for laughs, some of the pieces held a striking depth to them. No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg discusses (in narrative) what would happen if a happy afterlife existed, and what would happen to a person who dies, desiring to see his grandmother, who turns out to be busy doing the things that she had loved in her life, of which he was just a small part of. Another example is Sophia, a love story about a sex robot and the person she falls in love with. Think about that premise and how incredibly awful that could be as a story. Instead, there are whole sections dealing with consciousness and conditioning in a powerful way. Novak sometimes also links his stories (for example, a red shirt shows up more than once) very subtlety, leading to the feeling that the texts are interconnected and part of something greater.
Unfortunately, Novak more often than not runs with an concept too structurally, without allowing the implications to really present themselves. A couple of examples of this, for me, are MONSTER: The Roller Coaster and Dark Matter. With Monster, the premise is a roller coaster that emulates one's journey through life. This story had caverns of potential, which Novak shows with an exchange between test subject 1 and the rest of the characters about suicide, ending in:
"Sorry but I never asked to be on a ride with you. I just showed up and you were here. Who says I have to like it. You like it and that's great. I didn't. So what? Can't you respect that?'
None of them understood this attitude except 6, who understood but kept it to himself.
'That doesn't make any sense,' said 6." (Novak, 113)Deep, respectful, and at the end, lighthearted. Novak excels at fragmented moments of sentimentality and philosophy. However, unlike Sophia, this is about as deep as the story gets. The dialogue preceding and following it are all expected lines when discussing the weirdness of life.
This is not to say Novak's ideas are flawed. They're captivating and often very engaging. The issue with this collection is the execution: Novak lacks the playfulness of language that his ideas deserve and allows the ideas to play themselves out in a linear, non-complex fashion. This takes place even in the longer stories, which, because of their simplicity, rely solely on devices (like shock value) to carry one through the text. The often straightforward language seems far more suited for dialogue-heavy stories or screenplays, which makes sense considering his work in The Office.
Finally, and of course I must point it out, the lack of much non heteronormative, non-white characters (outside of a couple one-liners) was a hindrance, and I almost stopped reading the book because of that alone. Of all the stories Novak could think of, none included significant non-white, non-straight characters? I find that suspicious or at the very least ignorant considering he doesn't live under a rock.
In all, this book is a pretty good read. Not an incredible read, but a pretty good one. Overall, many stories might fall flat, but the inventiveness and imagination and depth in the dozen or so gems are worth it.
Here's a couple of the stories I recommend:
No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan FogelbergThe Something by John Grisham
The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela
The Ghost of Mark Twain
The Market was Down
Confucius at Home
A New Hitler
J.C. Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote
Short stories? Too long? Too Short?
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