Knopf; First Edition
For BJ Novak a short story is either a single line or 30 pages – or anywhere in between. A short story is either an allegorical pisstake (the book opens with a rematch of the tortoise vs. the hare) or a piece of New Yorker-styled satire. Or both. It’s whimsy and even if sometimes flimsy it’s allowed to carry the obvious mirth of David Sedaris or the sometimes smug, always brilliant wordiness and worldliness of Woody Allen at his finest. It’s allowed, too, to be freed up – in the David Foster Wallace way, in the Dave Eggers way, of playing out in any one particular (obvious) style or form.
Novak’s first collection of fiction is not his first foray into writing. Though known to many for his acting, producing and directing (The Office, The Mindy Project) he has been crucial to the TV shows he’s worked on as a writer, sometimes first and foremost.
His experiences as a writer are more closely linked with his experiences as a reader than his acting work. It’s often clear that he is aping the Woody Allen essays or Sedaris, that he is circling around ideas that first came to him when he read them on the page. But there’s enough of Novak’s style and personality in these 22 stories (and glimpses of stories) to never accuse him of anything plagiaristic; it’s a fairly clear set of influences (most of the time) and to anyone who has enjoyed Allen’s great prose pieces there’s plenty to enjoy here as a younger mind updates them.
From being constantly sidetracked when listening to a friend named Wikipedia through to tables turning on planned interventions, from cruel monologues to compassionate character studies Novak sometimes dazzles, always appears to be having fun and never fobs off the story as ever just an exercise. These pieces mean something to him. And most of them should hit – and stick – with the reader. He’s a great talent. I look forward, already, to his second book.