October 4, 2015

“Bream Gives Me Hiccups and Other Stories” by Jesse Eisenberg

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to the Seattle Times

Depending on your taste, Jesse Eisenberg is either the funny, awkward guy who shot Bill Murray in “Zombieland,” or the funny, awkward guy who played Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network.”

He is not the funny, awkward guy who sang “These Eyes” in “Superbad,” though he is sometimes mistaken for him.

You might also know Eisenberg as the guy who penned a clever series of stories for McSweeney’s, “Restaurant Reviews from a Privileged Nine-Year-Old.” These stories and others make up his debut fiction collection, an alphabet soup of sketches, riffs, and innovations, including “A Short Story Written With Thought to Text Technology.”

The aforementioned “Thought To Text” story, like many in this book of 44 stories, starts with a deceptively simple premise, and then zigs and zags and surprises as Eisenberg reveals his characters. 

Eisenberg, an Academy Award nominee, recently shared his theory of character and comedy with NPR. “When you’re acting in something, even if it’s a comedy, you’re supposed to find the emotional truth in it. So even when I’m in a comedy, you end up trying to find … what’s driving a character and it usually has something to do with something that’s not that funny. And, of course, the juxtaposition of funny context and serious person dealing with funny context is what makes it funny.” 

And Eisenberg is funny.

In “A Marriage Counselor Tries to Heckle at a Knicks Game,” the title character encourages the New York Knicks, but “let’s also recognize the positive attributes of the opposing team.” She yells at the refs, “Are you blind? If so, it would be amazing that you’ve been accurately officiating up until this last play, which, for vantage reasons, appeared to be to be called incorrectly!!!”

The counselor concludes her heckling with these zingers, “May the home team prevail!!! Or the visiting team! Or, if possible, may they both prevail by transcending the false notion of prevailing!!!” 

Broken into sections such as “Dating,” “Self-Help” and “Language,” story titles include “My Roommate Stole my Ramen,” “A Post-Gender Normative Man Tries to Pick Up a Woman at a Bar,” “Final Conversations at Pompeii” and “Marv Albert is My Therapist.” 

In some instances, the whole joke seems encapsulated by the story title, but Eisenberg invariably tries to take the humor to another level and usually succeeds with wit and insight beyond his 31 years. 

“Whenever mom opens a menu, the first thing she does is look at the alcohol and breathe a sigh of relief.”

Eisenberg, also a playwright, is often compared to Woody Allen, likely because of their shared affinity for neurotics, intellectuals and artists. These stories remind me more of Steve Martin in the way they often subvert comic convention and, more significantly, in how the author empathizes with his characters. 

Eisenberg’s empathy, even more than his intelligence and wit, make him an artist worth watching.