Late last year, Nora Ephron, a writer renowned for Manhattan-sharp observations and a penchant for probing personal neuroses, released I Feel Bad About My Neck: and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, her first collection of short pieces in decades. Now comes Woody Allen with Mere Anarchy, an intermittently funny sequel to his popular trilogy of humor collections: Getting Even (1971), Without Feathers (1975), and Side Effects (1982).
It appears that Woody Allen is back in the business of being Woody Allen, having resumed writing for The New Yorker (where the last ten of these selections first appeared; the first eight are new to this collection), and making movies (at least 2005's Match Point) that cause a cultural ripple beyond the dwindling ranks of Allen diehards. Since much of Allen's appeal depends on public perception of his persona, the question is how profoundly the changes in that public persona have affected the work and its reception. When he last published a collection 26 years ago, he was still almost universally beloved as the director-star of Annie Hall, with The Purple Rose of Cairo and Hannah and Her Sisters soon to come. He had established himself as the intellectual nebbish who found it easier to make a woman laugh than ignite her lust. He touched a common nerve by sharing the insecurities that so many of us share – and by making our darkest fears funny. People thought they knew Woody Allen, and they liked what they knew.
Then came scandal: the notorious breakup with Mia Farrow after his seduction of her adopted daughter (subsequently his wife). For many who had formerly found Allen hilarious, his explanation that "the heart wants what it wants" sounded pathetic, his romance a little creepy.
So the new Allen establishes a considerably less personal relationship with his readers, as Mere Anarchy doesn't explore Allen's heart or his libido. Instead, it offers riffs of various amusement on oddities that he has read in the New York Times – one about the abduction of an Indian movie star, another about "Technologically Enabled Clothing," another about film camp for kids. Yet even when he was much younger, Allen's obsessions were those of a much older man, haunted by mortality. In the year that he will turn 72, he addresses man's place in the cosmos in "Strung Out," which explores the practical applications of everyday physics (again inspired by a Times piece). "I am greatly relieved that the universe is finally explainable," he opens. "I was beginning to think it was me."
And death remains the ultimate punch line to the absurdity that is life's joke. How does one overcome a fear of death? he asks in "Sing, You Sacher Tortes": "By dying," he writes. "I figured it out – it's really the only way."