Over the past 40 years, Woody Allen's name has become so inextricably associated with film that it's hard to remember his alternate careers as a jazz clarinetist, stand-up comedian, and comic essayist. Then again, his last jazz CD came out a decade ago, and his three popular prose collections (newly collected in one volume, The Insanity Defense) are more than 25 years old. Allen finally re-enters the literary ring with Mere Anarchy, a short anthology conceived in his familiar nervy, neurotic humor, but packed with newfound density. At some point, he learned a lot of big, shiny words, and he jams them into his work in bulk over the course of these 18 brief, surreal sketches.
Absurdism still reigns supreme in Allen's stories, where various Allen-y nebbish narrators get hired to write Three Stooges film novelizations, or go on a gumshoe-noir trek in search of a missing truffle. Often, Allen starts with a real-world news story and stretches its key concepts to their most protracted, illogical ends. It's easy to picture him winding out skeins of fancy—his Mickey Mouse court deposition, for instance—over his morning paper, then getting back to his real work.
But while the silly topics recall momentary daydreams, Allen smothers his whimsy under complicated sentences packed with Yiddish, quaintly dated colloquialisms, intellectual allusions, and metaphors piled so high that entire paragraphs wiggle uncomfortably under their weight. Sometimes his high-flown style gets in the way of the humor, while at other times, it bars simple comprehension: "Faulkner and Fitzgerald too leased their gifts to ex-schmatte moguls who stacked the Garden of Allah with scriveners brought west to spitball box-office reveries," runs one typical sentence, discussing writers who sold out in Hollywood. When Allen alternates this sort of high-flown vocabulary-quiz nonsense with Mad magazine-worthy character names (Moe Bottomfeeder, Hal Roachpaste, Flanders Mealworm) and sudden reversals into lowbrow slang, the abrupt effect is like a slapstick collision with a brick wall: funny, but still sort of crude, no matter the elaborate setup. And the style—especially compared with the flat, accessible prose of his earlier bestsellers—seems forced and artificial, an attempt to impress the few readers who'll instantly get the references to Philidor's mate, or Calabi-Yau shapes. At its best, Mere Anarchy is absurd fun, but even Allen's best at this point is only meant for those familiar with, and predisposed to love, his intensely quirky style.