Woody Allen’s new collection is too witty to be canceled
The furor over Woody Allen’s alleged sexual abuse of Dylan Farrow has not blunted the comic’s sense of humor or zest for sharing his wit and talent with the world. Roughly half the pieces in the new collection Zero Gravity are previously unpublished, and the balance ran in the New Yorker from 2008 to 2013. Taken together, they put to rest any suspicions that the late-career work of the writer, actor, and director must inevitably lapse into weary self-parody.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
The cerebral humor of Zero Gravity provides a relief from so much of what passes for comedy in our time. Allen’s authorial voice is like an engaging stranger in a bar talking at a hundred miles an hour, revved up on a long life filled with vivid experience, reading, and reflection. Part of the pleasure lies in letting the wit and iconoclasm fly at you and finding those points of intersection, some expected and some much less so, between the author’s reading and interests and your own.
In the aptly titled “Think Hard, It’ll Come Back to You,” a busy New Yorker rattles off the myriad activities that crowded his day, including having hit up a health food store, attended a high-society function at the home of the Wasserfiends, and “stopped off at Stebbins’s home to return his arch supports, then to my bagpipe lesson.”
Not everyone will get the reference, but you may recall that Stebbins is the name of the boy in Stephen King’s dystopian nightmare The Long Walk who is able to keep walking, seemingly without wear and tear, while nearly all the other teens falter and drop and get shot by the soldiers. This critic once heard a reader of The Long Walk suggest that maybe Stebbins was a robot. Leave it to Woody Allen to clarify that Stebbins’s secret was to have tucked a pair of good arch supports between his feet and the soles of his moccasins.
In “You Can’t Go Home Again—And Here’s Why,” even readers who spot the refence in the title to Thomas Wolfe’s most famous novel may miss a more incidental one a bit later on, to Bobby Franks. Franks, of course, was the fourteen-year-old boy whom Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two University of Chicago students from wealthy backgrounds, abducted and murdered in May 1924. Some speculate that it was a thrill-killing.
This piece is not one of the New Yorker items preceding the blow-up over the Dylan Farrow allegations, and you may sense that it grew out of Allen’s more recent exasperation with the invasiveness of the paparazzi. It is the first-person account of a Manhattan resident who goes through a personal hell when a film crew takes an interest in using his home for a shoot and even enters the place when he is not there. When Murray Inchcape, one of the producers, calls the narrator at his home, the latter naturally wants to know how the exec got his private number. The latter replies, “Relax, pilgrim. I was merely leafing through some papers in your drawer today when we scoured the joint.”
Elsewhere, Allen continues his lifelong use of philosophers and other great thinkers as springboards to flights of comedic genius. Nowhere does come across more directly than in “When Your Hood Ornament Is Nietzsche.” In this piece, Allen imaginatively inhabits the point of view of one of the new self-driving cars charged with making spontaneous ethical decisions. A quintessential one posed by the driverless vehicle delivering the monologue is whether it should swerve to avoid hitting an old lady crossing the street when doing so may endanger the car’s passenger. A variant of this question comes up a bit later when the vehicle recounts an experience where it had to choose between swinging the wheel to avoid contact with four parade-goers on the street and protecting its owner.
The vehicle contrasts the choice that Utilitarian philosophers would have made—fostering the greatest happiness for the largest number by avoiding hitting the four—with the decision that the car, under the influence of Nietzsche, ended up taking. Here we have a philosophical debate, in the context of the monologue of a self-driving car adumbrating moral and ethical issues that will be increasingly hard to avoid in years to come.
The influence of Kafka comes across in “Tails of Manhattan,” in which a pair of gin-rummy colleagues, Abe Moscowitz and Moe Silverman, die and then find themselves reborn, not as roaches, but as lobsters in a tank in a swanky Manhattan restaurant. One of the patrons is none other than Bernie Madoff, who picks the two for his main course. This prompts Moscowitz to burst out, “To swindle me out of my life’s savings and then to nosh me in butter sauce! What kind of universe is this?”
It’s one where lobsters not only can talk, but can also rock their tanks back and forth hard enough to cause them to topple, then go after their tormentor and attack him in the name of all the charities and gullible elderly people who sank their life’s savings into Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.
In the final story, “Growing Up in Manhattan,” the rapid-fire, hyper-cerebral patter of the other pieces gives way to a conventional narrative style. This tale, which did not appear in the New Yorker and is several times longer than the others, relates the romantic misadventures of Jerry Sachs, an ambitious writer who worships Chekhov and O’Neill and who married way too early. When he meets a young woman named Lulu Brooks, who makes him think of what a fulfilling marriage would be like and of all that he lacks, they proceed to embark on many intellectual discussions, during one of which she asks him what fictional character he identifies with most.
Sachs tells him it is Gregor Samsa, who wakes up as a cockroach. The choice may be apt given that Sachs is married and fails to disclose this to Lulu right away. Yet in other respects, the story of an intellectual’s wobbly courtship of a dynamic young woman is too reminiscent of such familiar Allen fare as Annie Hall and Manhattan to feel fresh and inspired.
But by this point in the book, Allen has racked up a respectable number of laughs with his canny in-jokes and knowing references. Zero Gravity left this writer thinking of the passage in The Long Walk where the protagonist, Ray Garraty, has a vision of Stebbins lingering in the dark behind the other walkers and laughing at them. “You poor suckers couldn’t afford a pair of decent arch supports!”