If Jesse Eisenberg’s first fiction collection were made up of simple extended bits, in which Eisenberg takes an initial premise and wittily wrings it for every drop of comedic juice possible, the book would still be an entertaining read. What makes Bream Gives Me Hiccups (Grove; 256 pages) more than that, however, is the dissection of social anxiety underlying each piece. Through a myriad of perspectives—from a precocious, broken-homed nine-year-old boy and an obnoxious college freshman with self-projection issues to Carmelo Anthony after an irritating run-in with a fan—Eisenberg relates a collective understanding of how difficult it is to both like others and also feel liked.
At first it’s hard to imagine any continuity in a collection that features the Bosnian genocide, Alexander Graham Bell, and a guy at a bar tripping on manufactured hallucinogens. But Eisenberg, through intimate points of view, a commitment to each comic premise, and a nerdy but unpretentious deployment of knowledge, links these seemingly unrelated stories. He shows that at base everyone has that Charlie Brown-like combination of hope and disappointment: cynical enough to know the football is going to be swiped away at the last moment, but hopeful (or possibly deluded) enough to try again, anyway.