‘BoJack Horseman’ creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg shines darkly in his debut book

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“Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory” by Raphael Bob-Waksberg; Knopf (256 pages, $29.95)

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For all the oddball avenues explored in Peak TV, none have so successfully balanced the absurd with the tragic like Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s “BoJack Horseman.”

On the surface, the Netflix series is the story of a celebrity horse who walks upright, starred in a hit ’80s sitcom and navigates a parallel, at times surreal version of Hollywood as drawn by illustrator Lisa Hanawalt that’s populated by a flawed mix of anthropomorphic animals and humans girded by puns like Fred Seagull, MSNBSea and the Chateau Marmoset. Looking deeper, however, it’s maybe the clearest, most human depiction of depression and addiction ever seen in a half-hour TV comedy that’s not afraid to set aside being funny.

This is the heartfelt and occasionally silly wheelhouse for Bob-Waksberg, who continues to combine both emotions in “Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory,” a collection of short stories and the 34-year-old’s first book.

Some stories, like “Lunch With the Person Who Dumped You” and the bulleted “Lies We Told Each Other (a partial list),” are tragi-comic briefs threaded with biting details that leave a mark, like a flicked jab in a boxing match. The punch hits hardest in “Move Across the Country,” which finds a rushed narrator fleeing their stubborn companion “the Sadness” only to discover its return just as a new life has begun. “When the Sadness smirks at you and says with a wry insistence that unravels you in an instant, ‘This is the real love story here, buddy, you and me,’” Bob-Waksberg writes, and in a few short pages the story transitions to horror.

Longer stories, like the more elaborately drawn presidential theme park imagined in the first-person narrative of “More of the You That You Already Are,” conjure struggles for connection in grimly surreal alternative realities that recall the probing comic imaginings of George Saunders.

Mentioning a Man Booker Prize winner alongside the showrunner for a series about a depressed talking horse can seem like risky business, and while this book may be less likely for such shortlists, it’s easy to draw a dotted line from Saunders’ dystopian visions to the at times fantastic worlds Bob-Waksberg sets in motion.

Bob-Waksberg’s piece “A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occasion” rises from the many odd traditions one encounters in wedding planning to imagine a couple’s negotiating how best to satisfy friends, family and their budget in a pagan reality where Shrieking Choruses, Promise Eggs and goat sacrifices exist alongside Rite Aid. It’s an extension of the comic rule of following the absurd to its most extreme, and Bob-Waksberg follows it beautifully.

His story “We Men of Science” imagines a university professor charged with protecting a newly invented door to an opposite reality, and his inevitable explorations of alternative versions of himself and his loved ones yield increasingly strange yet affecting results. “This new universe I had discovered was exciting and terrifying and romantic, as anything that’s one tends to be all three,” Bob-Waksberg’s curious yet stubbornly unhappy narrator says as the boundaries of space and time begin to fray. “You walk through the Anti-Door and suddenly you’re a different person. Something is lost and something is gained.”

The book proves Bob-Waksberg can conjure many modern miseries beyond those of a talking horse, but not all his ventures pay off so well. “Up-and-Comers” struggles under the weight of combining a superhero origin story with a sort of “Behind the Music” document of young rock decadence, and “The Average of All Possible Things” fails to find much exceptional after establishing the middle-of-the-road nature of its central character, a lawyer rebounding from a bad office affair.

That said, for all its darkness, “Someone Who Will Love You” should be considered a lighter, amusing confection, one whose sweeter sides shine that much brighter with its balance of bitterness. In one of its strongest stories, “You Want to Know What Plays Are Like?,” Bob-Waksberg uses a character whose story is being partly retold by her playwright brother to mock the conventions of the theater with the second person while offering a loving sort of appreciation for those conventions.

“You find yourself applauding for this broad burlesque puppet show of your life, as if you really found the whole thing to be a marvelous endeavor,” writes Bob-Waksberg, a playwright himself. “You will think about this night a lot in the months ahead, and the one thing you will ask yourself over and over is: Why did you clap?”

Sometimes, whether onstage or on the page, after seeing something you recognize with all its sadness and imperfections, that’s all you can do.

 

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