Mere Anarchy, by Woody Allen

Mere Anarchy

I really looked forward to reading Mere Anarchy, but found it somewhat disappointing.

Allen’s three short story collections from decades ago are hilarious, very much the kind of delightful nonsense that appeals to me, like Monty Python’s skits, or Steve Martin’s short stories. I remember laughing at some of them till tears were rolling down my face.

I just never laughed much at this collection however. There are some OK moments, but it’s not the kind of laugh out loud stuff of his stories from long ago.

I wonder why that is? Is it possible I and my sense of humor have changed considerably over the years, and if I had instead read one of his old books for the first time now, then that wouldn’t be all that funny to me? Or is it him? Has he just moved on in life to where he’s no longer capable of being funny in his old way? Is he just going through the motions with his stories now?

I think in his old stories he was more willing to be absurd, whereas in these stories he makes a bit more of an effort to sustain a coherent storyline.

But I don’t know that there’s much specific like that I can put my finger on. It’s more just that these stories lack some wonderful intangible that the old stories had.

Almost every story in this collection I forgot within five minutes of finishing it. Whereas his old stories were full of memorable lines, memorable characters, memorable incidents.

Actually some of the best of those old stories weren’t even stories. I’m thinking of things like the college catalogue of classes. (The introductory level economics class teaches things like making change and keeping a neat wallet. In the advanced philosophy class, you get to meet God and discuss the universe with him directly.)

He’s good with oddball character names in this book; most of them sound like someone Groucho Marx would play in a movie. Still, there’s a limit to how funny a goofy name can be, and it feels like he falls back on this gimmick too often.

Maybe the thing I found most unsatisfying about the book is how almost all the characters sound the same. Specifically they all speak in–I’m not even sure how to describe it–a kind of pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, metaphorical way.

Here’s an example chosen at random from the first page I opened the book to: “Unbent by the turn of events yet requiring a minimal ration of caloric material in order to remain amongst the living,…” OK, it means he recognizes the necessity of doing whatever he needs to do to get the money to eat and such, but who talks like that? Dr. Smith on Lost in Space?

I can understand having an occasional character given to unnecessarily flowery phrases like that, but must the narrator of almost every story sound that way?

I’ll also admit that–partly because so much of it is written in this faux highbrow style–some of it goes over my head. There are some references I don’t get, some jokes that don’t mean anything to me because I lack the background knowledge or experiences.

I didn’t dislike the book. It’s clever and I got some laughs out of it. But to me it pales in comparison with his first three collections of stories. Nowhere in this book do we meet the equivalent of the fellow who, when he thought he was alone, would open up all his cans of tuna, array them in front of him, and say “You are all my children.” Nor are believers in the supernatural skewered with a tale like that of the twin brothers who, whenever one of them took a bath, the other would mysteriously get clean. Nor do we encounter anyone like the Beamish brothers, who conspired to get from England to Scotland by mailing each other. Nor is there an equivalent to the gentleman who took out his false teeth and ate peanut brittle with his gums every day for twenty years “until someone explained to him that there was no such job.” Nor do we get such rabbinical wisdom as the theory that in its original form, the Torah merely suggested not ordering the pork at certain restaurants.

There’s a wonderful ludicrousness to those old stories that’s only occasionally present or hinted at in this collection. Allen is still a lot funnier than the average person obviously, but there’s something missing now.

Mild recommendation. If your sense of humor is anything like mine, and you’ve never read his first three collections of short stories, I’d give a much stronger recommendation to those.

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