by Woody Allen
Random House. 160 pp. $21.95
Thirty years ago, my parents bought tickets to Woody Allen’s brand-new movie Annie Hall, thinking that it might serve to distract my mother from her advanced pregnancy with me. But the plan backfired; in the middle of the movie their unborn child started to give frantic signs of wanting out—forcing them to get out, too. So I have been a critic of Allen’s from an early-enough age to accept philosophically the deficiencies of Mere Anarchy, his fourth collection of short stories and his first since 1980. Admirers of Allen’s earlier fiction, however, are in for a disappointment: only a couple of the book’s eighteen pieces, ten of which have already appeared in the New Yorker, rival his witty “Conversations with Helmholtz” (1971) or “The Whore of Mensa” (1974).
I revisited Annie Hall recently and found it somewhat improved. In it, Allen’s character Alvy Singer is a neurotic comedian far more interesting than Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall, who exists chiefly to take in Allen’s wisecracks. The characters’ names are no accident. Annie is the concert hall for Alvy’s comic singing, and her purpose, like the purpose of the movie named after her, is to reflect the sounds that he emits.
Something similar might be said about the purpose of many of these stories. But the difference—and it is an important difference—is that in Annie Hall the last word belongs to the screenwriter/director Woody Allen, who is wise enough to ridicule the unengaging Alvy. In Mere Anarchy, there is no ridicule, and the author’s voice sounds very much like Alvy’s own.
This would not be a Woody Allen collection without at least a few deft parodies. Although Kaiser Lupowitz, the Raymond Chandleresque sleuth of earlier Allen stories, does not make an appearance, some readers might enjoy a takeoff of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon in which the trophy “MacGuffin” is not a large black bird but an expensive truffle. In one climactic line the fat man, a carbon copy of Gutman in Hammett’s novel, realizes with horror that the truffle he has pursued for so long is phony:
“My God, sir!” he screamed. “It’s a fake! And while it’s a brilliant fake, counterfeited to simulate some of the truffle’s nutlike flavor, I’m afraid what we have here is a large matzo ball.”
Taking the same tone is “Pin-chuck’s Law,” narrated by a hard-boiled NYPD detective who, setting out to solve a string of murders, trips lightly over a series of crime-story clichés along the way. “The Rejection,” another parody, zanily employs the style of a 19th-century Russian novel to tell the story of Boris Ivanovich, whose son has been spurned by an exclusive Manhattan nursery school. (“[Boris] pictured three-year-olds in Bonpoint outfits cutting and pasting and then having some comforting snack—a cup of juice and perhaps a Goldfish or a chocolate graham. If Mischa could be denied this, there was no meaning in life or in all of existence.”) “Calisthenics, Poison Ivy, Final Cut” is a series of letters between a Wall Street blueblood, whose son has been offered $16 million by a Hollywood studio for a movie he has made at film camp, and the camp’s wily proprietor, Moe Varnishke, who threatens obliquely to destroy the film’s negative if he is denied a piece of the action.
Allen is at his best in the parodies, where he has a fixed literary model both to imitate and to depart from, and in the epistolary exchange, which resembles a screenplay in that it consists solely of dialogue. But when left to his own devices—when he is neither parodying someone else nor just writing dialogue—he gets into trouble.
In many of the stories in Mere Anarchy—they tend to be the ones that never appeared in the New Yorker—he tries repeatedly to milk laughs from the improbable words of both the characters and the narrator. Seldom, for example, does anyone in these stories say anything: instead, they parry, squeak, yelp, chirp, chuckle, pipe, bid, announce, and “fonfer.” In one story, an untalented actor who has found work as a lighting double is kidnapped by the inept followers of an Indian bandit:
“I send you out to snatch a cinema luminary, and this is what you bring me?” the hash-high CEO ranted, nostrils flaring like sails that had caught the wind.
“Master, I beg you,” groveled the Dalit hailed as Abu.
“A stand-in, a supernumerary not even—a lighting double,” the grand fromage bellowed.
“But you will agree there’s a resemblance, master?” squeaked one trembling plaintiff.
And so on, as though the text had been run through some riotous Microsoft Word function that merged the Find-and-Replace and Thesaurus tools.
A clue to what fills Allen’s own sails with wind may lie in “Strung Out,” a story that imports the language of particle physics into an office romance (“All I knew was that I wanted to wrap my weak-gauge bosons around her gluons”), and in “Sing, You Sacher Tortes,” a description of a musical about turn-of-the-century Vienna whose “opening number [has] Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Adolf Loos singing ‘Form Follows Function.’” Neither is very funny; their main purpose seems to be to impress us with how much Allen knows, with the jokes serving—unsuccessfully—to keep us from being put off by his bragging.
The obsession with outlandish words is a lexical version of the same tactic, undercut by the fact that Allen’s vocabulary is fairly limited and therefore annoyingly repetitive. He uses “myrmidons” in three different stories, “lagniappe” in three, “exaltation” (as in “an exaltation of larks”) in three, “sconce” (meaning “head”) more times than I could count. You do not have to be Flaubert to be unimpressed.
The same redundancy, finally, applies to characters and situations, and to even more unpleasant effect. Certain writers (Conrad and Hardy, for example) like to spring a character from a previous work on their readers, giving us the pleasure of running unexpectedly into an old friend. In Mere Anarchy, the feeling is more like running unexpectedly into a pointy stick. The main recurring character, or rather caricature, who goes by different names in different stories, is essentially the same person: a loud, vulgar Jew, spewing a mixture of absurd slang and Yiddish, always on the lookout for Number One, usually at the expense of the naïve and meeker narrator.
In the collection’s first story, the caricature is named Max Endorphine. “What can I tell you, boychick, I hit it big,” he gloats in describing a guru who has supposedly taught him to levitate; of course the gullible narrator gets into trouble when he tries to duplicate the feat. In the second story, he is Pontius Perry, the agent who unloads the role of lighting double on that talentless actor: “Let me level with you, boychick,” Perry says as he breaks the bad news. (Does any real-life Jew ever use the word “boychick”?) In the fourth story, a crass producer named E. Coli Biggs wants the narrator to write movie novelizations. “Here’s the scam, tatellah,” he begins. “I happen to own the rights to a cinema classic starring the Three Stooges . . . a real zany vehicle for our three most irrepressible meshoogs.” Of the eight new stories in the book, the same repellent character appears in four, and then pops up again two or three times later.
The charge of anti-Semitism has been leveled at Woody Allen so many times as to sound unoriginal. Without rehearsing all the evidence and counter-arguments, the very least one can say is that, when it comes to seizing on a tired stereotype and utterly exhausting it, Allen has shown himself a modern master of unoriginality.
How then to explain the charm of his best movies? The answer is that they do not ask us to admire the character he himself most often plays: a pathetically neurotic, self-centered, wanly wisecracking intellectual or pseudo-intellectual. By contrast, the problem with most of the stories in Mere Anarchy is that they do not stand outside this character; instead, they are written by him. Their “implied author” (to use the terminology of the late critic Wayne Booth) is none other than that selfsame pseudo-intellectual—who to boot, and for no discernible reason, asks the reader to regard him as a superior human type.
As I noted earlier, two or three of the stories in Mere Anarchy—especially “The Rejection” and “Calisthenics, Poison Ivy, Final Cut”—show that when Allen manages to speak in voices that are foreign to him, he is still capable of crafting good fiction. Readers interested in pursuing other examples should investigate The Insanity Defense, a one-volume edition of his three previous collections. But anyone looking to experience his best work should skip the prose altogether and sit down with a few of his classic movies.