Bream Gives Me Hiccups & Other Stories by Jess Eisenberg, book review

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In Hollywood, it is not enough to just make films nowadays. Gwyneth Paltrow offers questionable diet tips via her lifestyle website, James Franco pens dodgy poetry, and Scar-lett Johansson sings lacklustre Tom Waits covers. Now another A-lister, Jesse Eisenberg – Oscar-nominated star of The Social Network – is lending his star power to the short story.

In Bream Gives Me Hiccups, Eisenberg presents a range of tales told in several different forms. We find email transcripts, letters and text messages, all of which present brief yet thorough portraits of his characters. They are a madcap troupe, presented in ingenious ways and categorised in sections including Language, Dating and Self-Help, providing a catalogue of neuroses and insecurities.

In the opening story, which gives the collection its name, we meet a nine-year-old boy who reviews his meals out of 2000. But alongside the comments on taste and cuisine, he offers a damning depiction of his mother, who makes tawdry insinuations about the young boy's sexuality, slurs her ex-husband and, both dramatically and hilariously, flees a new-wave health spa.

Beyond this, Eisenberg continues to deliver both considered humour and intelligent, conversational prose, with "My Little Sister Texts Me with Her Problems" and "Alexander Graham Bell's First Five Phone Calls" proving pithy, funny yet satisfyingly simple.

For all the acerbic jokes and subtle satire, however, the sheer volume of stories is this book's undoing. While the experimentation with form adds variety, the tone of the comedy does not. Bream Gives me Hiccups is a charming and clever collection which occasionally packs a striking emotional punch. But it would benefit from a more ambitious approach.

Eisenberg is a sharp and smart writer, somewhat reminiscent of the early work of his regular collaborator Woody Allen, and this is a promising sign. And yet, there is an unshakeable sense that he may consider this to be a much greater work than it is. There is a tangible presence of both style and substance in this debut collection, but Eisenberg has not yet earned his standing ovation.

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