Every once in a while, you just need some comic relief. I’ve laughed my ass off at Jesse Eisenberg’s comic portrayals over the years, my favourite of his films was Zombieland – because of course – but I also enjoyed Adventureland and admired his acting chops in The Social Network. He’s firmly earned a place among the roster of young stars who’ve made it big – and done so while still seeming like the type of person you could enjoy having a beer with. Which, let’s face it, is no small feat. He also has a background as a playwright, and has contributed to the likes of The New Yorker, which I’m sure lent him the skills to move into the literary arena.
When I heard that he was coming out with a book, my curiosity was piqued. How much of the humour he portrayed on screen was the writing, and how much was it because he’s a genuinely funny guy? And if he can portray humorous and likable characters so well, how would that translate to the page? What would it be like to spend some time in that curly-haired head of his? These are the questions that drove me, with no small measure of excitement, to dive into his new book head-first.
First, the most important question: Is it funny? Yes. Yes, it is undoubtedly funny. It’s also quirky, eclectic and has some truly squirm-inducingly awkward moments and characters. So pretty much what you’d expect from Eisenberg’s on-screen persona. The book consists of a bunch of different stories, told in different ways. Some are straight narrative, others are a series of letters or text messages or emails. The format variation definitely keeps things interesting, and there were some truly great ideas here. In addition to the humour, there were some unexpected emotional undertones. I ended up feeling quite strongly for some of the characters (others I felt quite strongly that I wanted to punch in the face).
Now for the difficult part. What did I think of the book overall? I went into this really wanting to love it. And there were elements I did love. Eisenberg’s characters on the page, much like the characters he has portrayed on the screen, are awkward and often misunderstood, yet compelling for their foibles and faults. He has a knack for opening their lives to us with an occasionally off-putting transparency, and he had some truly awesome comedic ideas behind many of the stories.
If I had to pick favourites from the actual set of stories, I’d have to go with “Restaurant Reviews from a Privileged Nine-Year-Old” for its concept and main character, who reminded me of Sue Townsend’s famous diarist, Adrian Mole. I also appreciated his ability to take complex social and political references and weave them into humorous stories, in particular the story entitled, “An Email Exchange With My First Girlfriend, Which at a Certain Point Is Taken Over By My Older Sister, a College Student Studying the Bosnian Genocide,” which thoroughly impressed me.
Weirdly, though, the part I enjoyed most in this book was the acknowledgments page, which felt more genuine and un-selfconscious than any of the stories. He dropped the cynicism he seemed to hide behind for the meat of the book, and I found myself wishing this voice had been present in the body of the book. Though the formats and topics of the stories varied hugely, the voice remained consistent – cutting, sarcastic, and somewhat snide at times. While excellent for a short stand-up set, an entire book in this tone left me feeling a bit burned out.
I also had trouble with his female characters. They’re almost universally unpleasant – selfish, unkind, unreasonable, anti-male, fickle. Of course, these portrayals were purposely overdone to be humorous, but by the end of the book my patience wore a little thin.
Now, to be fair, his male characters didn’t fare all that much better – he certainly poked fun at their expense as well, if to a slightly lesser extent. And this is not new ground. Much comedy (particularly of this type) is carefully composed to toe the line between funny and offensive, and which side it comes down on is often more to do with the audience than the material. So I’m trying not to over-react. I’m sure he intended it to fall on the humorous side of the line. But still, I kept noticing the unpleasantness of the female characters as I read, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it difficult.
Unfortunately, by the end of the book, the things that bothered me had begun to outweigh the positives. While the core ideas of each piece were creative and varied from interesting to brilliant, the delivery ultimately fell a bit flat. In some instances the writing needed a bit more punch and slightly better timing to really push the story into snort-beer-out-my-nose-funny territory. Other sections just went on too long while essentially repeating the same content with variations in detail, and by the time I got near the end of these sections I was getting bored.
As I mentioned earlier, and I think bears repeating, my areas of disappointment in this book are at least partly (if not totally) subjective. I know many other bloggers and reviewers have absolutely raved about Bream, and I’m sure many of you will find exactly what you were looking for in these pages.
If you’re a fan of Eisenberg and have been eagerly anticipating his first literary foray, by all means give it a shot. This book is my literary equivalent of The Office – I’m not a fan, but a hell of a lot of other people really, really are. If nothing else, it’s an easy, fun read (even if it doesn’t quite tickle that funny bone into beer-snorting laughter), and if Eisenberg keeps writing, I’ll definitely read his next book.
To balance out my opinions, and to be fair to Eisenberg and his work, here are some other reviews I came across (both positive and negative) to help you figure out if this book will be your particular brand of vodka.
In the news:
- Jesse Eisenberg’s “Bream Gives Me Hiccups” is no masterpiece – so what? – The Washington Post
- Eisenberg embraces misfits in “Bream Gives Me Hiccups” – Yahoo News
- Book of the Week: Bream Gives Me Hiccups by Jesse Eisenberg – Esquire
- Bream Gives Me Hiccups & Other Stories by Jess [sic] Eisenberg, book review – The Independent
- Jesse Eisenberg’s New Book Gets Seriously Absurd (And A Little Serious) [interview] – NPR
- ARC Review: Bream Gives Me Hiccups by Jesse Eisenberg – Caught Read Handed
- Bream Gives Me Hiccups: A Book Review – Back to Carolina
And a short excerpt from his first set of stories:
Taking its title from a group of stories that begin the book, Bream Gives Me Hiccups moves from contemporary L.A. to the dormrooms of an American college to ancient Pompeii, throwing the reader into a universe of social misfits, reimagined scenes from history, and ridiculous overreactions. In one piece, a tense email exchange between a young man and his girlfriend is taken over by the man’s sister, who is obsessed with the Bosnian genocide (The situation reminds me of a little historical blip called the Karadordevo agreement); in another, a college freshman forced to live with a roommate is stunned when one of her ramen packets goes missing (she didn’t have “one” of my ramens. She had a chicken ramen); in another piece, Alexander Graham Bell has teething problems with his invention (I’ve been calling Mabel all day, she doesn’t pick up! Yes, of course I dialed the right number – 2!).
United by Eisenberg’s gift for humor and character, and grouped into chapters that each open with an illustration by award-winning cartoonist Jean Jullien, the witty pieces collected in Bream Gives Me Hiccups explore the various insanities of the modern world, and mark the arrival of a fantastically funny, self-ironic, and original voice. – Goodreads
Book Title: Bream Gives Me Hiccups
Author: Jesse Eisenberg
Published By: Bond Street Books
Released: September 8, 2015
Genre: Short Stories, Fiction, Humour
Date Read: September 4-10, 2015