Funny but overwhelming: Jesse Eisenberg turns from screen to page

Bream Gives Me Hiccups is quintessentially American.


Bream Gives Me Hiccups By Jesse Eisenberg
Grove Press, £14.99

Film actor Jesse Eisenberg's book is quintessentially American. The idioms, the tone, the throwaway lines could come from nowhere else. But, unlike American stand-up, TV or film, the script comes straight and strong off the page, unmediated by the fun of a real voice, or the capers of visuals. And, despite its jokey intent, it is pretty hard work for the reader.

Rather like having the script for the first 50 episodes of Friends dropped into your lap, the humour is presented so relentlessly that what could be funny is overwhelming. Eisenberg clearly has a coruscating wit and a wry, dry approach to modern life, but despite the jacket cover's assurance that he is "hilarious" and "fantastically funny" readers might qualify those claims.

The book contains a wide spread of stories, playlets, pastiches and snatches of dialogue. In Language, there is a spoof book review in which the writer insidiously vents his own dissatisfactions with modern feminism while loading the book's complicated plot with hidden meaning. The allusions are esoteric and the piece overhung with irony but Eisenberg has a great command of language and the tongue-in-cheek earnestness is amusing.

Ideas come thick and fast in Eisenberg's mental landscape. A Marriage Counsellor Tries to Heckle at a Knicks Game (the collection demands an in-depth knowledge of American sporting life) works, as many of his skits do, by juxtaposing the fatuous earnestness of a therapist with the fast action of real life: "Ref, are you blind? If so it would be amazing that you've been officiating so accurately."

Much of the material is familiar. Alexander Bell's First Five Phone Calls recalls Bob Newhart's "arrival of tobacco in the English Court" routine, which is more explosive and - as performed with those famous dramatic pauses - much funnier. Final Conversation at Pompeii falls down the mine-shaft of its own deeply dug ironic hole, and the less said about Marxist –Socialist Jokes the better: "How do you get a one-armed Marxist Socialist out of a tree? Ask two teamsters to drive three riggers… with approved ladder to the tree to help the one-armed Marxist Socialist down." Hmm.

Much more successful are his Dating scenes. These Alan Bennett-like monologues feature a sequence of offbeat (and off-putting) characters. A Post Gender Normative Man Tries to Pick up a Woman in a Bar sounds like the last thing likely to entertain but Eisenberg brings it off.

Family does have some funny moments but it is so breathlessly over-paced and strangely clichéd. The overbearing Jewish matriarch in My Mother Explains the Ballet to Me has been done so many times and often better.

No, the genuinely high-quality material within the collection lies in the title group of stories Bream Gives Me Hiccups at the beginning of the book. It is entirely brilliant. A little boy reviews a series of eateries he attends with his mother - from Organix and the Nozawa Sushi bar to Thanksgiving with Vegans.

This New York Adrian Mole aged nine-and-a-half not only reveals the pretentiousness of modern restaurant culture but the sadness of his own life with a self-absorbed frantic mother and an absent father. It is skilfully plotted and both funny and moving.

Given a structure, and a character of convincing depth, Eisenberg graduates from the random, hey-guys-imagine-what-if? school of know-all comedy to a profound, accomplished level of writing in which he reimagines the struggle of a child of a frantic consumer culture to understand - and forgive - the adults around him.

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