Side Effects, by Woody Allen
This particular book is a collection of short stories originally published in magazines like the New Yorker and New Republic that were written between 1975 and 1980 or so, and if you like Woody Allen’s anarchic and oddball sense of humor, there is a great deal to enjoy here. My feelings about Woody Allen as an author are decidedly mixed, but his stories are at least far more enjoyable than his plays, and more in line with the whimsical and often enjoyable quality of his movies, and so this book has a great deal to offer even someone whose worldview is far different from that of the author. For the most part, these stories do what one would expect, and that is provide an author who is very capable of making funny jokes to view the material of his life and perspective as the source of zany short fiction. There is nothing that is great literature here, although these stories are certainly worthy of being considered as minor classics in the genre of short fiction, subgenre of Jewish comedic fiction. If you have any sort of tolerance for humor told from the point of view of an educated secular Jew, there are things in here you will likely appreciate.
The stories themselves have no relationship to each other but do have a great deal of similarity by dealing with themes that the author has tackled over and over again in his writings. There are eulogies to dead friends, jokes about the UFO menace, comments about sex phrased as advice to graduates that one would give at a commencement speech, discussions about affairs with cover stories, imaginary dialogues about Socrates (“My Apology”) and Abraham Lincoln (“The Query”), odes to the shallowest man, jokes about restaurant criticism that are combined with riffs on mathematics and politics, and even one very unpleasant story (“Retribution”) that features a man who finds out that a girl he was once interested in is far more interested in him when he marries her mother. Given his own future, the fact that he views women with daddy issues in such a light as this carries very unpleasant resonance. This is a collection of stories that tells a lot more about Woody Allen and his interests, both his ability to draw a laugh out of readers and the unpleasant material of his personal life, than he perhaps intended, and it is a collection that demonstrates that people should not have really been surprised about what was revealed about his life and personal character from the 1990’s, as it was in his fiction all along.
I don’t know if this is a book I can exactly recommend. If you like the blend of real and fantasy, between humor and irreverence, between fixation on death and an open hostility towards godly moral standards that one can find in the most sophisticated comedy of our age, this book has a lot to offer. If you see this book as providing a look into the life and mindset of Woody Allen and others like him who are wealthy and cultured secular Jews who have rejected the ways of God and even the traditions of their elders in order to seek their own pleasure and assuage their own guilty consciences however they can, this book can have some value. For many people, this book will likely be a funny selection of comedic short fiction, and for others it offers the chance to remotely diagnose its author of all kinds of evils, and however one chooses to read this book, there is likely to be something worthwhile that one sees about ourselves as well as about the author and his particular situation among the elite of New York City. Whether what one sees is good or bad, of course, depends vastly on one’s perspective, and reveals a great deal about where the reader stands concerning the moral seriousness of our times.