What Carver, Borges and Woody Allen all have in common
That Mere Anarchy is Woody Allen’s first prose collection in 25 years would be reason enough to put it into some kind of context. But there’s another, larger reason: In that quarter-century, Allen, like Jerry Lewis before him, has fallen from national touchstone to knee-jerk punch line for middlebrow comedians, though we would have to sift through tens of thousands of Dane Cooks and Dennis Millers to find one true innovator the caliber of Lewis or Allen.
Allen has become the go-to fall guy, even when the subject at hand is miles away and the Allen-bashing must be violently forced, as in Kurt Andersen’s New York Times review of a Doonesbury compilation: “Garry Trudeau has not, thank goodness, fallen victim to Woody Allen Syndrome, neither Stage 1 (trying too desperately to be serious) nor Stage 2 (losing the ability to be funny).”
Dislike of Allen seems to be rooted in either his film persona or his public troubles. Forgetting those externals and concentrating on the page, we find, first of all, a disciple of S.J. Perelman.
Perelman, in a 50-year career that began in the 1920s, wrote countless comic essays and pastiches—“feuilletons,” he called them. He was a verbal surrealist who idolized James Joyce and inspired the nightmare comedies of his likeminded brother-in-law, Nathanael West.
Perelman is all over the title “Sam, You Made the Pants Too Fragrant,” one of Mere Anarchy’s 18 bagatelles. There’s explicit reference to Perelman’s “Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer” in Allen’s “How Deadly Your Taste Buds, My Sweet.” Raymond Chandler, whose rococo tough-guy lines also work as extravagant and imaginative self-parody, is a direct in?uence on both writers.
Allen, like Perelman, relishes throwing the vitality of Yiddish together with a thesaurus’ worth of pedantry, often in the service of a sincere hatred of the show-biz community (the latter being another trait both men share with Chandler and West).
“This Nib For Hire” has all the Perelman markers, along with the wiseass pop existentialism Allen has staked out as his special territory. In the story, a crass producer with the W.C. fields-worthy name E. Coli Biggs (“If this is as lucrative as my proboscis signals, there’s copious zuzim to be stockpiled”) hires an idealistic, young, “serious” writer, Flanders Mealworm, to novelize a Three Stooges short.
“We are at least free to choose,” wept Curly, the bald one. “Condemned to death but free to choose.” And with that Moe poked his two fingers into Curly’s eyes. ‘Oooh, oooh, oooh,” Curly wailed, “the cosmos is so devoid of any justice.” He stuck an unpeeled banana in Moe’s mouth and shoved it all the way in.
We are informed that Mealworm’s previous book was The Hock?eisch Chronicles, a novel in which the protagonist “travels back in time and hides King George’s wig, thus hastening the Stamp Act.”
Allen excels at titles for non-existent works of bad art. They’re studded throughout Mere Anarchy, and stumbling on them provides the most consistent supply of laughs. Examples: Dry Heaves: A Journal of Opinion; a soap opera called When A Mole Darkens; and the Broadway musical Fun de Siecle, in which Wittgenstein and Alma Mahler sing the love duet “Of Things We Cannot Speak We Must Remain Silent.”
Experimentalists like Eco, Calvino, David Foster Wallace, Gilbert Sorrentino and especially Borges delight in dissecting artists and opuses that exist only in their minds. One questions whether what keeps Allen from that list is a kind of literary snobbery, apart from the typical ghettoization of humor.
Allen is, in every way that counts, blue-collar: a self-taught craftsman with a relentless work ethic but no college degree (close to the same qualities that cause some people to insist Shakespeare couldn’t have written those plays).
It’s not a stretch to put Allen in the pantheon. McSweeney’s website editor John Warner offers this: “I would call Woody Allen’s writing ‘short stories’ in the same way Raymond Carver wrote short stories, but somewhere along the line we decided that these were not the same thing. Benchley, Perelman, Thurber and, later, Allen were all respected as writers, not ‘merely’ as comics. At some point, though, we began to codify the ‘short story’ as something that resembles the real, that aspires to verisimilitude.”
George Saunders (recent recipient of a MacArthur ‘genius grant’ for his satirical fiction) identifies a “comic virus” he caught from the Steve Martin prose collection Cruel Shoes. At the time, Saunders says, he didn’t realize Martin was exhibiting symptoms of exposure to Perelman and Allen. Later still, when Saunders discovered Donald Barthelme, he recognized yet another victim of the disease.
It must be admitted that Allen’s insistence on framing his works as “mere” humor pieces produces a defensive undertone. It’s there in the title of his book, turning his allusion (in Yeats’ apocalyptic lyric “The Second Coming,” he was using mere in its original sense of “absolute and undiminished”) into a kind of preemptive apology.
This humble tone is cemented in Allen’s penchant for the topical newspaper epigraph. Perhaps too many of the stories in Mere Anarchy rely on badly dated headlines like the nanny-tell-all stir or the fall of Michael Ovitz. Without the ballast of a newspaper quote, Allen sometimes relies on the labored setup (“As a hatchling chloroformed and shanghaied each summer to various lakeside facilities bearing Indian names…”) or the final rim shot.
“Pinchuck’s Law” ends the book with such a ba-dump-dump. All the way through, it’s a series of escalating and exhilarating twists on the police procedural, from a coroner who performs autopsies at weddings “for cigarette money” to a serial killer whose victims are “lightly dusted with lime and fresh mint.” It’s only in the last paragraph that Allen begins to ?ag, when he lays out the skeleton of a final joke. We’re left appreciating what he gave us, and imagining where the story might have gone next.
But that’s like criticizing a sonneteer for stopping at 14 lines. While Saunders’s visions and the pieces on the McSweeney’s site seem fresher as they strip away the old formulaic surfaces, Allen remains pure, funny and stubborn—the last feuilletoniste. And as Schoenberg said, there’s still a lot of great music to be written in the key of C.