Saturday, February 12, 2011

Woody Allen's "Mere Anarchy": a book review

Woody Allen's Mere Anarchy is his first new literary work in many years.

In addition to churning out roughly a movie a year for 40 years, director Woody Allen has also worked as a stand-up comedian, actor for hire, playwright, and author. In fact, he has written three bestselling collections of humor, Getting Even, Without Feathers and Side Effects, collecting his various short stories, essays, and plays, along with absurd lists and guides.

One of the great thrift-store finds of my life was a Book of the Month Club paperback containing all three of these books (unabridged!) in one easily-portable volume. This is a book I've taken with me on long trips many, many times. You can dip into it just about anywhere and find something entertaining, ranging from exercises in pure silliness, like Allen's highly unlikely "Slang Origins," to truly well-written fiction. In fact, I'd count "The Shallowest Man" and "The Kugelmass Episode" among the better short stories I've ever seen by anyone, anywhere.

Mere Anarchy (2007) is Allen's first collection of prose in decades, and reading it is like attending a concert by a '70s hitmaker who wants to try out some new material after a long absence from touring. Allen has given up on the plays, essays, and guides this time, so Mere Anarchy only contains short (often very short) stories -- 18 altogether, ten of which originally appeared in The New Yorker and eight of which are new to this edition.

For the most part, the eight new stories are fairly weak -- contrived, unfunny, and somehow both overwritten and undercooked -- and Allen's editor has done him no favors by running all of them in a row at the beginning of the book. For that reason, Mere Anarchy gets off to a very slow and bumpy start, and I would not blame readers for abandoning it and moving on to something else.

Allen's writing style tends to include a lot of eccentric vocabulary choices, semi-obscure cultural references, and Yiddishims, and in these early tales he tends to let his "quirks" overwhelm the weak plots. For readers unfamiliar with Allen's prose, Mere Anarchy sometimes verges on unreadable. His decision to give seemingly every character a wacky name might also grate on readers' nerves.

About the only new story that rates with Allen's best is "Glory Hallelujah, Sold!" about a prayers-for-cash scam. The nadir of this part of the book, for me at least, was "Sam, You Made the Pants Too Fragrant," an extended riff on the idea of "enhanced" clothing that stretches a lame premise far beyond its breaking point.

The good news is that the ten New Yorker stories are, on average, much stronger and funnier, so the back half of the book is a much smoother ride. Here, you'll find "Thus Ate Zarathustra," a rumination on food and philosophy that could easily have found a place in one of Allen's three classics, as well as highly amusing takes on physics ("Strung Out"), home repair ("On a Bad Day You Can See Forever"), and overly chatty dentists ("Pinchuk's Law").

The New Yorker selections aren't perfect, though. Some critics fawned over "Surprise Rocks Disney Trial," a story in which Mickey Mouse gives very un-Disney-like testimony at the trial of Michael Eisner, but for me this was a missed opportunity. Allen thinks it's funny simply that a cartoon character is talking in a very businesslike way about sex and money and is casually referring to other cartoon characters as he does so, but to really make a piece like this work you have to truly understand the characters and their careers. Specificity is what makes or breaks a pop culture spoof.

For an example of how to do this kind of thing correctly, try to find "Some Famous Couples Discuss Their Divorces" by Delia Ephron in her 1986 book, Funny Sauce. That contains brief monologues by several cartoon characters, including Mickey & Minnie (along with Popeye & Olive Oyl and Archie & Veronica), and it's funny, daring, and insightful in ways that Allen's story just isn't.

Misogyny is also a problem for Allen. I'd be curious to hear a woman's perspective on Mere Anarchy. Females do not come off terribly well in Allen's stories. In fact, they generally fall into one of two categories: curvaceous young sex kittens and nagging old harpies who spend their husbands' money too freely. If you don't have a Y chromosome, you're pretty much either a bimbo or a crone in this book, with very little middle ground.

Given Allen's advancing age and infamous sexual history, his numerous leering descriptions of attractive young women, at least two of whom are complimented on their "protoplasm," might make some readers uncomfortable. He kind of comes off as an old lech now and again.

Amazingly, you can read a lengthy excerpt of this book for free on Google Books!