As the story goes–and I once interviewed him and he confirmed it–B.J. Novak was cast in The Office on the strength of one joke. Here it is: “I spent four years in college. I didn’t learn a thing. It was really my own fault. I had a double major in psychology and reverse psychology.”
Novak deploys both kinds of psychology, the normal kind and the reverse kind, in his first story collection, One More Thing, but whereas in the joke they cancel each other out, on the page they amplify each other. One More Thing belongs to that slightly dusty genre, the humorous collection, but it’s much more interesting than that makes it sound. The line between the merely funny and the literary isn’t as clear as it’s made out to be; supposedly when Kafka read The Trial out loud he laughed so hard he could barely get through it. Not that I’m comparing Novak to Kafka, but One More Thing shares some literary DNA with minor classics like Woody Allen’s Without Feathers and Steve Martin’s Cruel Shoes, as well as with the work of great meta-pasticheurs like Mark Leyner: it has that same caustic humor and that same deep awareness of exactly what’s weird about our present cultural moment.
Novak has a gift for mimicry so pitch-perfect it’s practically Auto-Tuned and an uncannily precise eye for where the line is and when to cross it. In “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela,” his impression of Sarah Silverman doing geopolitical trash talk is so spot-on absurd, it borders on Barthelmean: “Archbishop Tutu, it’s funny that you’re a bishop, because in the international community’s approach toward poverty, aid and economic relations, I’ve always thought of you as more of a pawn. [Ohhhhs] What’d I say? What’d I say?” (Novak also manufactures a quote from me, in a piece about a man who translates The Great Gatsby from English into English. Though in that case I’m not sure he nails the voice.)
There are a few throwaways, as there are in any collection of 60-plus stories–Novak has a weakness for one-page vignettes, some of which are approximately one page too long–but at its best, One More Thing demonstrates that sometimes if you follow the cultural logic to its logical extreme, it wraps all the way around and bites itself in the ass. In one story, a woman is so determined to have an affair with Tony Robbins that she enlists Robbins himself as her life coach, and he winds up manically egging her on to seduce him even though he’s happily married: “You’re going to sow the seeds of doubt so that the bedrock of trust that sustains my marriage will collapse. Are you ready to do that?”
Novak likes unpleasant narrators. “Dark Matter” is about a man at a planetarium who hears an astronomer explain that even though most of the universe is dark matter, nobody knows exactly what that is. “But I looked closer at the scientist,” he says, “and I could tell something from the smirky little smile on his fat smug face: This motherf-cker knew exactly what dark matter was.” He proceeds to corner the astronomer and extort the truth from him, except that when the cosmic truth is finally revealed, he’s not even listening–he’s thinking about some party he didn’t get invited to. At first we think “Dark Matter” is funny because we’re so much nicer and more self-aware than the narrator is, but by the end we’ve started identifying with him, and the joke turns out to be that we ourselves are rather more unpleasant than we thought we were. The psychology is thoroughly reversed.
This appears in the February 17, 2014 issue of TIME.