Jesse Eisenberg is the new Woody Allen for the next generation, or at least he is in a similar vein of that brand of comedy. Forty years from now there will be another intelligent, sensitive, insightful, funny Jewish writer who maybe has a film career and writes to nourish his soul, and some love struck fan will write that So-and-So Baum is the new Jesse Eisenberg. It is a vicious cycle of flattery and emulation. Bream Gives Me Hiccups is the first novel of short stories from Jesse Eisenberg, compiled over the course of several years from submissions to McSweeney’s and The New Yorker as well as never before seen characters. He is also a fantastically accomplished playwright and has starred in and written three critically acclaimed Off-Broadway plays. His most recent play, The Spoils co-stars Kunal Nayyar of the Big Bang Theory, as a Nepalese immigrant, based on Jesse’s friend Kalyan, who dreams of Wallstreet as a foil to Jesse Eisenberg’s character, Ben, who is lovably loathsome, as a struggling film maker who lives off of his family’s money. To Ben, money is unimportant because he is already wealthy, or comes from wealthy people, but to Kalyan, money and success are everything. Jesse Eisenberg may be the hardest working man in entertainment today.
It’s hard to choose one or two moments to really highlight in what is an entire book of tremendous pathos and hilarity. Jesse has breathed life into these characters, and given them a sustainability that would enable them to exist outside of the scenarios they have been placed within. I had picked up the book recently to peruse but thought that listening on tape (my phone– does anyone listen on actual audiotape anymore?) might be a better medium since I had planned to run some errands that day. I had my headphones in, ready to get to work, when I realized I had actually just been standing in my kitchen, holding a cup of coffee I hadn’t bothered to take a sip of yet, listening to each chapter. These heartbroken, fractured, selfish, desperate, beautiful characters, could have come from someone eavesdropping on conversations I’ve had with my neighbors, and teachers and friends, (and myself). I sat down, and instead of listening to the book while I should have been cleaning my floor, or dying my hair, I spent my day on my couch, and laughed out loud with no warning, followed by bouts of intense silence, which probably frightened my neighbors*.
All of the pieces are character driven, but some are more well developed than others. Some characters are only seen in vignette style prose, such as the narrators from Marv Albert is My Therapist and Carmello Anthony and I Debrief Our Friends After a Pickup Game at the YMCA, which are both written pieces that are received better when performed, although, they are just as valid when read. However, Jesse Eisenberg’s delivery lends an extra layer of enticement to those chapters. The two chapters, which are borderline novellas, that are the stand out pieces of the book, are the 9-year-old food critic whose imagined utterance is the namesake of the collection, and Harper Jablonski, of the chapter, My Roommate Stole My Ramen, whose voices are so well developed, separate novels could be written from their points of view and would never cease to be entertaining and alternately heartbreaking.
The food critic is oblivious to much of what is happening around him and to him, but he is remarkably empathetic, and because of that, he is able to give an unadulterated child’s perspective on what it means to have a real emotional response to something without the taint and stigma of adulthood’s oppressive ideals. There is a great line in this book where the young critic makes mention that adults spend so much time with each other, they can only think as other adults do, but that children haven’t been around as long and can only think like themselves, which is a stroke of genius on Eisenberg’s part, because the idea is presented simplistically, but is in essence, the sum of this character. The nameless 9-year-old food critic has a very complicated relationship with his mother, as revealed through the chapter, but he has a very uncomplicated understanding of his context within that relationship, and so he is able to justify her behavior for two reasons; one being that he has never known anything other than her, and at this point in his life, he is only now discovering or discerning differences between his mother, and other women, and two, his mother might be awful, but she’s HIS mother, and at the end of the day, she is who he would choose, regardless.
Harper is probably my favorite character in the book. No, she’s definitely my favorite, and she is also the most well written character, as she is filled with a violent and unforgiving rage that is punctuated by brief moments of optimism that are usually truncated by her depression. I feel for Harper. I think I was Harper. Life sucks when you feel invisible, and part of me wants to wrap my arms around this demented teenage girl and tell her it’s going to get better, and the other part of me wants to watch her catastrophize and spiral further and further down the rabbit hole of freshman year, because it’s amazing writing, and I love her brand of crazy.
Jesse Eisenberg’s voice has an almost sweet quality to it; there’s an apologetic tone and a lightness that adds a level of hilarity to the juxtaposition of reading some of his darker characters. There is also a melancholy that is sort of underlying all of it; the happiness, the frantic, the twisted, all of it is laced with just the tiniest bit of sadness, which is apparently something I enjoy. I like listening to his voice and his dialect. For example, the way he uses a soft ‘s’ in ‘because’ or the way he has perfect diction, even when he’s rapidly rambling, and the way his voice, even when shouting, is never grating. In fact, should my own book of short stories ever become published, I would prefer Jesse read them instead of me.
And not for nothing but I may be smarter now than I was before I read this. That could even be the tagline, ‘Read this. It might make you unintentionally smarter.’ In a way, it reminds me of Sesame Street; through the guise of someone speaking in the affected tone of a disgruntled, misunderstood teenage girl, the audience has been tricked into learning something valuable about the human condition. Also, that there were jilted spouses in Pompeii named Debbie. The more you know.
And so, just because I know I’ve rambled long enough, and that all this flattery and adoration would probably make Jesse incredibly uncomfortable, I’ll wrap it up, and say that is why I gave Bream Gives Me Hiccups 1,994 out of 2000 stars.