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The Insanity Defense
The Complete Prose
By Woody Allen
342 pages; $15.95
By Woody Allen
160 pages; $21.95
Thanks to the films of Woody Allen, the words neurotic and Manhattan are wedded until death do them 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?
Real life New Yorkers - few of whom, it should be said, actually live such a life - don't find these Allen tableaux so funny. 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 - it would seem - a mere cluster of intelligence-flattering reference points grab some laughs.
A large number of Allen's essays are literary precursors to the mockumentary style of Christopher Guest's films 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 laundry lists. "Conversations with Helmholtz" describes a dialogue 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 Neither of these essays feels terribly amusing today, especially now that Freudian analysis has been replaced by the more ideologically neutral "therapy," but Allen's ear for the pieties of language is sharp.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 airtight 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 parmigian 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 of 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'Shawn's 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. Would that were more of him here, for too many of these pieces pivot on a Broadway musical-like focus on the making of a show or a novel or a play.
An independent film mogul, E. Coli Biggs, tries to convince one Allen narrator to work on the novelization of a Three Stooges film. In "Tandoori Ransom," a down-on-his-luck actor is shipped off to Bollywood to be a lighting double. In "Calisthenics, Poison Ivy, Cut," an irate parent trades angry letters with a camp counselor angling for the distribution rights to a screenplay the narrator's son wrote at film camp.
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 that 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, perfectly combustible.
If only all of Allen's prose were so airy, so edible.
The writer is president of the National Book Critics Circle.