In this collection of (very) short stories, B.J. Novak — formerly a writer, producer, and actor on the US version of “The Office” — uses his comedic imagination to ask a variety of hypothetical questions. What if the hare who lost the fabled race to the tortoise became obsessed with thoughts of a rematch? What if the handsome man you met in a bar turned out to be a brutally violent African warlord? What if you could literally hold a mirror up to Earth? And what if Chris Hansen, of “To Catch a Predator” fame, were forced to go to a Justin Bieber concert at the insistence of his tween daughter? Novak answers these questions and many more in his debut collection of funny, dark, ridiculous, and often poignant stories.
The first thing to say about these stories is that most of them are very short, some no more than a page or two. So most of the stories don’t have time to delve deeply into plot or character; rather, they focus sharply on a single joke or idea (see, for example, “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela” or “The Market Was Down”). In that sense, it’s easy to see the influence of Novak’s TV background. However, even if you aren’t a fan of “The Office” or its style of comedy, you should still find plenty to enjoy in this book! I was very impressed by how smart Novak obviously is; clever wordplay and literary allusions abound. Several of the stories are laugh-out-loud funny, but the comedy is often followed by a swift stab to the gut. One story in particular, “The Ghost of Mark Twain,” gave me chills. Overall, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up this book, but I was very pleasantly surprised!
I was fortunate to be able to attend a book signing with Novak at which he read a few of the stories out loud. Having heard the stories in his own voice, I would strongly recommend the audiobook to those of you who enjoy that format. Apparently Novak reads many of the stories himself, although there are some “special guest appearances” by other actors such as Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham.