Ugh. This is the sound produced by reading “Bream Gives Me Hiccups,” the vacuous debut story collection from Jesse Eisenberg, better known as “the guy who played Mark Zuckerberg in the Facebook movie.” Eisenberg is a gifted, even fearless screen actor, but as a writer, he’s a dud. Stay in your lane, Jesse.
The best that can be said about these 39 brief comic riffs is that they are occasionally mildly amusing, in an effete New Yorker way. This is no surprise, as some of them originally appeared as “Shouts & Murmurs” columns. They are wholly representative of the genre: aggressively, almost frantically unfunny doses of pseudo-intellectual humor for people who like to congratulate themselves on how sophisticated they are.
The most obvious antecedent to this tawdry exercise in celebrity moonlighting is James Franco’s ill-starred venture into the short story genre, which apparently is now retroactively seen as a disastrous sally meant to illustrate everything Jesse Eisenberg is not. Unfortunately, “Bream” makes Franco’s “Palo Alto” seem like “Dubliners.” Somewhat to his credit, Franco seemed at least to have made a cursory show of learning his craft. For Eisenberg, playing David Lipsky in “The End of the Tour” opposite Jason Segel’s David Foster Wallace apparently made him think, “Hey, how hard could it be?”
The first section of the book leans heavily on the hackneyed ploy of the child narrator, whose unconsciously ironic observations are apparent to the reader. (Who’s going to tell Eisenberg that this is blazingly unoriginal? His agent? His editor? Unlikely.) When the 10-year-old protagonist’s shallow mother drags him to an ashram, he describes it as “a place that stressed-out people go when they’re rich.”
The other sections are even flatter: self-
indulgent riffs that sound like a college sophomore’s stand-up act over at the Rathskeller’s Thursday night open mike. (“Why did the Marxist-Socialist cross the road? To get to the Marxist-Socialist sit-in on the other side of the road.”) Eisenberg seems incapable of perceiving the difference between a moderately promising setup and a fully executed comic performance. Almost everything in the collection feels soft, tossed off, half-baked. A title like “A Post-Gender-Normative Man Tries to Pick Up a Woman at a Bar” is pretty much the whole joke right there. It would make a reasonably witty tweet.
The worst of the lot, in the face of strong competition, is the tone-deaf “Smiling Tricks Your Brain Into Thinking It’s Happy,” in which the idea of mental illness and violence is played for laughs. “And as I was being marched to the electric chair,” the story ends, “I made the face of a man who was being marched to Disneyland and then my brain believed it was going to Disneyland.” Tasteless and corrosively funny is an irresistible combination; tasteless and not funny at all rather less so.
All this seems harmless enough, really, not worth getting worked up over. So “Bream Gives Me Hiccups” is not a masterpiece. So what. But the consequences are significant. Never mind blather about the democratizing potential of self-publishing and the false utopia of endless digital distribution. Book publishing is an increasingly savage, zero-sum game of cultural musical chairs, and every ounce of oxygen sucked up by Eisenberg’s vanity project is one that is not going to spark the career of some worthy, desperately underappreciated writer. That person, whoever she is, just got bumped off the end of the queue.
Michael Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey.
By Jesse Eisenberg
Grove. 275 pp. $26