The Social Network star Jesse Eisenberg publishes his debut short story set this week, marking a transition from Hollywood actor to author that is unusual, if not entirely without precedent. Gene Hackman writes novels. Viggo Mortensen is a poet. James Franco, of course, dabbles.
But the most obvious comparison, perhaps homage, is to Woody Allen, not only because Bream Gives Me Hiccups is chiefly about growing up awkward and neurotic in a New York Jewish family, but because Eisenberg, 31, shares the older man's gift for putting an almost permanent wry smile on your face. Opener 'Restaurant Reviews from a Privileged Nine-Year-Old' – the strongest piece – is written from the perspective of a sensitive young soul being hauled around New York hotspots by his alcoholic mother. It's very funny, genuinely touching and (unsurprisingly) rumoured to have been snapped up for an Amazon TV adaptation.
Along with childhood trials, we get pieces on the peculiar anxieties of the digital age, some already published in The New Yorker. Paired monologues 'A Post-Gender-Normative Man Tries to Pick Up a Woman at a Bar' and 'A Post-Gender-Normative Woman Tries to Pick Up a Man at a Bar' cleverly skewer the Twitter generation's preoccupation with identity politics, while 'My Spam Plays Hard To Get' sees the narrator judged and rejected by online sex workers and Nigerian scammers.
There are email exchanges, parodies of summer camp, medical notes in the voice of a mocking father, dialogues (Eisenberg has had some success as a playwright) and – lo and behold – some jokes, plain and simple. The constant shift in form keeps things fresh, even as some ideas inevitably work better than others. With his pensive and occasionally downtrodden demeanor, Eisenberg has made an unlikely movie star (though he's bagged the role of Lex Luther in next year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). Perhaps being an author – albeit a very funny one – is a more obvious fit. But it is when he writes more and jokes less that Eisenberg's prose really sings, leading you to hope he takes the plunge and writes a proper novel soon. But his thoroughly enjoyable debut will more than do for now.
Bream Gives Me Hiccups (Grove Press UK) is out on 8 September