Review by John Freeman
The Insanity Defense and Mere Anarchy
Thanks to the films of Woody Allen, the words “neurotic” and “Manhattan” are wedded until death do they part. Where else can one drop one’s dog off at a day spa, visit a Jungian analyst, then wash it down over a lunch pricier than a used BMW?
Most real-life New Yorkers don't live such a life, of course. Most don’t find these Allen tableaux so funny, either. Indeed, it’s important to remember Allen isn’t a chronicler so much as an absurdist—whose greatest skill is pinpointing a silly truth by exaggerating it to hot air balloon proportions.
Mere Anarchy, a new book of Allen’s essays, and The Insanity Defense, a reissue of his complete prose, reveal the brilliance and occasional pitfalls of his approach to humor. For every piece that hits its target with sniper’s precision, there are several that scatter intellectual buckshot, hoping a barrel full of intelligence-flattering reference points hit some laughs.
A large number of Allen’s essays are literary precursors to the mockumentary style of Christopher Guest’s films This is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman. “The Metterling Lists” pokes fun at the rage of posthumous publishing with an exhaustive rundown of a European novelist’s actual laundry lists. “Conversations with Helmholtz” describes a dialog with an imaginary Freudian disciple who lives in Switzerland with “his manservant, Hrolf, and his great Dane, Hrolf.”
Neither of these essays feels terribly amusing today, especially now that Freudian analysis has been replaced by the more ideologically neutral “therapy,” but Allen’s ear for the pieties of language is sharp. He lands a more direct blow in “Yes, but Can your Steam Engine Do This?” a hysterical essay about the Earl of Sandwich and his quest to invent the perfect lunchtime meal: “Living in the country on a small inheritance, he works day and night, often skimping on meals to save money for food. His first completed work—a slice of bread, a slice of bread on top of that, and a slice of turkey on top of both—fails miserably. Bitterly disappointed, he returns to the studio and begins again.”
Allen is terrific at lambasting the air-tight narrative of artistic progress we hear so often about geniuses. “Selections from the Allen Notebooks” turns this device upon himself. “Good, Lord,” Allen writes in a mock diary, “why am I so guilty? Is it because I hated my father? Probably it was the veal parmigiana incident. Well, what was it doing in his wallet?”
It’s easy in such moments to hear the echoes of all the comic writers who have built their careers upon the light-as-air touch of Allen: Ian Frazier and Andy Borowitz, not to mention Steve Martin and the terrifically funny George Saunders.
Like all these writers—Allen is a supreme, devilish mimic. He strings the readers along with two authentic, perfectly timed sentences, and then delivers with the absurdity of the third. Food is often the punch line.
“The moon figures heavily in O’Shawns later poems,” Allen writes in a piece on a fictional Irish poet. “He told James Joyce that one of his greatest pleasures was to immerse his arm in custard on a moonlit night.”
“Mr. Big” introduces Kaiser Lupowitz, Allen’s sass-talking private eye, who is forever unraveling schemes for buxom blondes that repay him with gymnastic sex. In the “Whores of Mensa,” Kaiser must crack open a prostitution ring for men who pay to talk books with a good-looking woman. “For a hundred, a girl would lend you her Bartok records, have dinner, and then let you watch as she had an anxiety attack.”
Kaiser comes back in Mere Anarchy, Allen’s latest collection of humor pieces, the majority of which appeared in The New Yorker. Die-hard Allen fans might find this material funny, but the best of this book involves greater flights of fancy—and food—as in “Thus Ate Zarathustra,” a spoof which imagines what kind of diet book Nietzsche would have written.
“The existential catastrophe for Schopenhauer was not so much eating as munching,” writes Allen, turning one of the weightiest philosophers into an imaginary confection, light as a cream puff, and perfectly combustible. If only all of Allen’s prose were so airy and edible.
The Insanity Defense by Woody Allen , Random House, paper, $15.95.
Mere Anarchy by Woody Allen, Random House, hardcover, $21.95.
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