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Thursday, 13 March 2008

Mere Anarchy

When I learned that Woody Allen was bringing out a new book I bought it sight unseen. I bought his last film Scoop without even bothering to read the reviews of it but I've not got round to it yet. If he released a set of knitting patterns I'd buy it. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those fans who think their hero can do no wrong – like most people I am all too aware of the failings of his films of the early noughties – but I also know that a 'bad' Woody Allen film is a decent film by anyone else's standards. I own them all bar a couple of the very early ones and have watched most of them many times over. I'd be hard pressed to name my favourite but my top five would likely include Hannah and Her Sisters, Play it Again, Sam and Sleeper and two others probably Manhattan and Radio Days but ask me again tomorrow and who knows?

I also own all of Allen's writing, at least all that has made it into book form (I even had the comic strips once upon a time) and that includes his latest collection Mere Anarchy so I thought I'd try and do the same there. From Without Feathers I'd have to go for 'The Whore of Mensa'; from Three One-Act Plays, 'Death' (which I dragged my daughter to see in the theatre); from Getting Even, 'Death Knocks' and from Side Effects, 'The Kugelmass Episode'. But would I pick anything from Mere Anarchy? I have to say that I would and it would be 'Strung Out' a wonderful romp through the field that is quantum physics.

Allen's latest collection, culled in part from his articles for The New Yorker, did not receive universal praise when it was released and the main criticisms are all valid. The vocabulary is more involved – the man has obviously been learning a new word a day for a long time – and the Yiddishisms ("a tsimmes of talentless trombeniks" – love the alliteration), are far more prevalent than in any of his other work, a bit too prevalent for my tastes. The satire lacks a bit of bite but it is what it is; he's really only comparable to himself and maybe S J Perelman, another New Yorker contributor of note, who, like Allen, would also take something he read in an issue, satirise it and mail it right back to them.

Allen's subject matter may have broadened slightly but the approach is the same ol' same ol' tried and tested. The stories are all inhabited by characters (or variations of the same caricatures to be honest) who all have to contend with a perverse universe that is out to get them. And the universe is happy to use whoever is on hand to do its dirty business, sharkish agents, cowboy builders and internet opportunists all with oh-so-familiar Allen-esque monikers: Max Endorphine, Hal Roachpaste, E. Coli Biggs and Moe Bottomfeeder. There is a veneer of realism to the book but only a veneer; when one character moves to India it is as if a backcloth has dropped and we're in India, the accents don't change.

I remember watching a documentary on Jewish humour a good few years ago (distinguished by a performance of some Yiddish Blues) but was annoyed to find no mention of Woody Allen in the entire programme. I wonder if this is perhaps because his more overt Jewish characters are never sympathetically presented; he's quite nasty with them in fact. One can see why anti-Semitism charges might be levelled against him as he does little to recommend either the faith or the lifestyle of its practitioners and, in that respect, these stories do him no favours.

It's interesting to compare the style when he is covering similar subjects:

Can we actually "know" the universe? My God, it's hard enough finding your way around in Chinatown. The point, however, is: Is there anything out there? And why? And must they be so noisy? – My Philosophy (Getting Even)

I am greatly relieved that the universe is finally explainable. I was beginning to think it was me … How could I not have known that there are little things the size of "Planck length" in the universe, which are a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimetre? Imagine if you dropped one in a dark theatre how hard it would be to find. And how does gravity work? And if it were to cease suddenly, would certain restaurants still require a jacket? – Strung Out (Mere Anarchy)

The time between the two pieces is at least 35 years; of course the voice has changed (he even makes a similar crack about a noisy singularity later in the story) but it's still patently the same man with the same sense of humour. Yes, the earlier stuff is a little punchier, yes, but also a lot sillier. It's like comparing Zelig to Take the Money and Run – there is a world of difference in his approach to humour in these films despite the fact they are both filmed in a documentary style.

Clearly Allen has been improving himself through reading and you could accuse him of showing off a little especially in stories like 'Strung Out'. The thing about the big words (of which there are plenty) is that you really don't need to stop and look up every one, at least not on a first read (and these stories do warrant rereading), just enjoy the language for being preposterous and overblown:

A born talent with heroic lineaments, the aquiline profile of a Barrymore, and the corybantic suppleness of a strutter and fretter in the Kabuki… - Tandoori Ransom

There is also the fact that when he was writing the earliest of these pieces he was doing stand-up; it's not hard to imagine him stammering away into a microphone about paying certain women to discuss philosophy with him and I see no reason why his famous 'Moose' monologue wouldn’t work every bit as well on paper. And here to prove it:


Here's a story you're not going to believe. I shot a moose once. I was hunting in upstate New York, and I shot a moose.

And I strap him onto the fender of my car, and I'm driving along the West Side Highway. But what I didn't realize was that the bullet did not penetrate the moose. It just creased his scalp, knocking him unconscious. And I'm driving through the Holland Tunnel and the moose wakes up.

So I'm driving with a live moose on my fender and the moose is signalling for a turn. And there's a law in New York State against driving with a conscious moose on your fender, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. And I'm very panicky. And then it hits me—some friends of mine are having a costume party. I'll go. I'll take the moose. I'll ditch him at the party. It won't be my responsibility. So I drive up to the party and I knock on the door, and the moose is next to me. My host comes to the door. I say, 'Hello, you know the Solomons.' We enter. The moose mingles. Did very well. Scored. Some guy was trying to sell him insurance for an hour and a half.

Twelve o'clock comes, they give out prizes for the best costume of the night. First prize goes to the Berkowitzes, a married couple dressed as a moose. The moose comes in second. The moose is furious. He and the Berkowitzes lock antlers in the living room. They knock each other unconscious. Now, I figure, here's my chance. I grab the moose, strap him on my fender, and shoot back to the woods. But I've got the Berkowitzes. So I'm driving along with two Jewish people on my fender. And there's a law in New York State, Tuesday, Thursday, and especially Saturday...

The following morning, the Berkowitzes wake up in the woods in a moose suit. Mr. Berkowitz is shot, stuffed, and mounted at the New York Athletic Club. And the joke is on them, 'cause it's restricted.

The thing about reading anything by Woody Allen is that I immediately have the right voice in my head – I can hear him narrate the tales – and I have the right mindset. I don't do that with hardly any other writer, even the ones I've met in person. The bulk of the new material would not stand up, if you'll pardon the pun, to performance in front of a live audience, but it was never designed to any more than Salinger's short stories were. (Incidentally, Salinger also wrote for The New Yorker.)

The stories in this new collection contain what you would expect from Allen: 'How Deadly Your Taste Buds, My Sweet' is a takeoff of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon in which the trophy “MacGuffin” is not a large black bird but an expensive truffle; 'The Rejection,' another parody, 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 and in 'Strung Out,' particle physics is presented to us in the guise of an office romance:

Now, in the debate over whether everything is made up of particles or waves, Miss Kelly is definitely waves. You can tell she's waves every time she walks to the watercooler. Not that she doesn't have good particles, but it's the waves that get her trinkets from Tiffany's. My wife is more waves than particles, too, it's just that her waves have begun to sag a little.

Although Allen does tackle up-to-date subjects like selling prayers on the internet, on the whole there is an old-fashioned tone to the collection. Then this is the guy who unashamedly puts tunes from the thirties and forties in his present day movies and why not. The other thing is that this is a collection. These were written as stand alone pieces and reading more than a couple at a time does them no favours. It emphasises their sameness because, as I've already said, the backdrop may change, the names may change but the characters are drawn from the same stable he has been using for years and a horse by any other name is still a horse and I think we know where that's leading so I'll quit while I'm ahead.

There are no belly laughs in this new book but I'd be hard pressed to think of any book where I have laughed out loud. I don't laugh out loud at most of his films (Sleeper being a memorable exception) but I guess that's me; I smile appreciatively. The humour in this book is clever in every sense of the word and only very clever people are going to get everything; the sad thing is that these are the ones most likely to look down their noses at it.

A lot of people have found cause to look down their noses at Woody Allen, some not appreciating the directions his film-making has taken, others making too much of his public troubles; it should not surprise us that people might want to pick holes in his writing and invite people to peek through them: "See, there's nothing there!"

Would I recommend the book? Yes, I would. It will be appreciated best by those familiar with Allen's work, especially his early work, particularly the prose work. If you're on a fixed budget though and have never read anything by him go for The Complete Prose (recently reprinted as The Insanity Defence: The Complete Prose) – much better value for money.

A lot of comics have turned to writing some time in their career but McSweeney’s website editor John Warner offers this comment about how we history should remember Woody Allen, writer:

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.

Mere Anarchy? There is nothing mere about this book apart from the fact it took him a mere twenty-five years to get round to it.

To conclude, two lengthy excerpts, one from the new collection and an earlier one to compare it with.

To Err is Human – To Float, Divine – excerpt (Mere Anarchy)

The Metterling Lists – excerpt (Getting Even)

To my mind everyone should know this but for those who don't, Woody Allen (born Allen Stewart Konigsberg; December 1, 1935) is a three-time Academy Award-winning American film director, writer, actor, jazz musician, comedian and playwright. His large body of work and cerebral film style, mixing satire, wit and humour, have made him one of the most respected and prolific filmmakers in the modern era. Mere Anarchy comes out in paperback in June but you can already pick up copies of the hardcover for not unreasonable prices.


Ken Armstrong said...

Let me be momentarily pedandic. (Please).

It's just that I think 'The Moose' works a lot better if it's written with the line - 'The moose mingles' all out in a paragraph of its own. For me, that's the killer line and I reckon it deserves its own place.

Great blog as ever sirrah.

Carrie Berry said...

Most enjoyable read. My husband got a copy of Scoop for Christmas - perhaps one of these days he'll get around to playing it for us.

Jim Murdoch said...

Strange, Ken, I always hang on for the "Scored."

Conda V. Douglas said...

I've always adored short stories and the short stories by Woody Allen--and I think you're right, Jim, his writing has intensified. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the new collection.

Thanks for the insightful review.

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