Mere Anarchy

By Woody Allen.

Random House. 160 pp. $21.95

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Reviewed by Glenn C. Altschuler


'Here you are after all these years," Rex Harrison once said to Robert Morley, "with the same house, the same wife, and if I may say so, the same performance."

Woody Allen didn't stay married to the same woman. But since the 1960s, for better and worse, as a monologuist, actor, director and writer, his act hasn't changed all that much. An anti-intellectual intellectual, a marginal man unable to take yes for an answer, Allen mixes high-culture discourse with Jewish shtick, the sacred with the mundane, to puncture pretentiousness, hubris, greed, and any notion that life is comprehensible, meaningful or just. You don't have to recognize Eduardo Cianelli, Stanley Ketchel and Franz Kafka to enjoy Allen. Or know what "schvontz," "schnecken," and "sheigetz" mean. But it helps. A lot.

Mere Anarchy, Allen's first collection of short stories in 30 years, is a sometimes dazzling, sometimes disappointing display of essayistic slapstick. Allen is rarely topical. His satiric barbs - like "Pinchuk's Law," which makes it a felony for dentists to endanger their patients through relentless conversation - don't have much bite. His comic genius - like that of S.J. Perelman and Groucho Marx - depends on rapid-fire verbal play and incongruous juxtaposition. He appeals to an audience that is au courant. "Strung Out" dresses up Henny Youngmanish "take my wife - please" jokes in the latest physics jargon. The narrator thinks his spouse is more waves than particles. But "her waves have begun to sag a little," and "she has too many quarks. Lately, she looks as if she has passed too close to the event horizon of a black hole and some of her . . . was sucked in. It gives her a kind of funny shape, which I'm hoping will be correctable by cold fusion."

In "Sing, You Sacher Tortes," Broadway producer Fabian Wunch seeks backing for Fun de Siècle, a musical set in Vienna. Songs include Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Adolph Loos in "Form Follows Function" and Alma Mahler and Ludwig Wittgenstein in a duet called "Of Things We Cannot Speak We Must Remain Silent." In the penultimate scene, Alban Berg advises Gustav Mahler that "this bearded cat," living at 19 Bergasse, can cure his marital problems "for a few pfennig an hour - which for some reason the guru has emended to fifty minutes." Freud unblocks Mahler so he can write again. How does Mahler triumph over his fear of death? "By dying," Wunch explains. "It's the only way."

Even at their best, the stories stimulate a sense of déjà vu all over again. "Thus Ate Zarathustra" reveals the contents of Friedrich Nietzsche's newly discovered diet book. Because the Open Turkey Sandwich was thought licentious, we learn, sandwiches remained closed until the Reformation. And Descartes released gluttons from guilt by dividing mind and body: While the latter gorged, the former thought, "Who cares? It's not me."

"Thus Ate Zarathustra" is a slight variation on the themes of two hilarious stories - "My Philosophy" and "Spring Bulletin" - that Allen wrote three decades ago. In "Zarathustra," Allen writes that "Epistemology renders dieting moot. If nothing exists except in my mind, not only can I order anything, the service will be impeccable." In "Spring Bulletin" he defined the curriculum for a course on epistemology: "Is knowledge knowable? If not, how do we know this?" - and for a course on the Absurd: "Why existence is often considered silly, particularly for men who wear brown and white shoes. Manyness and oneness are studied as they relate to otherness. Students achieving oneness will move ahead to twoness."

Allen isn't an acquired taste. Either you like him or you don't. Although Mere Anarchy is more of the same, for his fans familiarity will probably breed content(ment).

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.