The overall emphasis of Woody Allen’s short fiction is summarized by the title of his second book-length collection, Without Feathers. The title alludes to an Emily Dickinson line: “Hope is the thing without feathers. ” The particular hopelessness with which Allen deals, in his mirthful way, is that described, defined, and passed down by such philosophers and literary figures as Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka. It is one in which the death of God, existential meaninglessness, and surreal distortions of time and space are the norm. In this world, anxiety abounds, human reason is essentially flawed, and truth disappears into the twin vacuum of moral relativism and perceptual uncertainty.
While Allen demonstrates an instinctive grasp of the issues raised by such a worldview, his treatment is, as one might expect in a humorist, always tongue in cheek. Allen is no scholar, nor is he trying to be one. He accepts the more or less existentialist premises that inform his work and seems to believe in them. He does not take them seriously enough to ponder systematically. In fact, he makes fun of people who do so, particularly those who do it for a living. Nor does Allen sink into despair. Instead, he uses the philosophical and literary atmosphere of his time as a convenient springboard for laughter. In essence, his work transforms the uncertainty of a Godless universe into fertile ground for his free-flowing style of comedy.
One technique that enables Allen to accomplish this goal is parody, or comic imitation. Most of Allen’s fiction contains parody—ranging from imitation of Plato’s Apologia Skratous (399-390 b.c.e.; Apology, 1675) to variations on Kafka and Count Dracula—and some stories are multiple parodies. Any mode of thought, scholarship, literary expression, or lifestyle that people celebrate or venerate is fair game to Allen. Indeed, the more seriously a philosophy is taken, the more fun he seems to have tipping it over onto its humorous side. This is not to say that Allen’s humor is limited to parody, nor that it is always subtle. Allen is too much the stand-up comedian to let any opportunity for a laugh—no matter how vulgar or easy—pass by unexploited. Nor does he tolerate lulls in his comedic fiction. On the contrary, he shoots for a pace of humor so rapid that the reader will never be left time to wonder when the next joke is coming. Finally, Allen’s work often harks back to his roots. While his stories are less autobiographical than some of his films, they often involve—at least in passing—Jewish characters and issues of importance to Jews.
The characteristics listed above are amply illustrated by Allen’s story “Mr. Big.” In the story, Kaiser Lupowitz, a New York private investigator, is between cases when a beautiful blonde calling herself Heather Butkiss (as suggested above, no joke is too small for Allen) comes to his office and asks him to search for a missing person. The missing person she wants him to find is Mr. Big, that is to say, God. Lupowitz demands to have all the facts before he takes the case. The blonde admits that Butkiss is an alias, claiming that her real name is Claire Rosensweig and that she is a Vassar College student working on an assignment for her philosophy class. Lupowitz takes the case for his usual daily fee of one hundred dollars plus expenses.
The investigation begins with a visit to a local rabbi for whom Lupowitz had worked previously. After some revealing pokes at the notion of what it means to be God’s “chosen people” (Allen likens it to a “protection” racket), Lupowitz visits an informer, Chicago Phil the atheist, in a pool hall to find out more about his client. There, he is told that she is really a Radcliffe student and that she had been dating an empiricist philosopher who dabbled with logical positivism and pragmatism (somehow, Arthur Schopenhauer also is mentioned). That evening, Lupowitz dines with his client. After a bout of lovemaking, the two discuss Kierkegaard. A telephone call from the police interrupts them; it seems someone answering God’s description has just showed up in the morgue, a homicide victim. The police suspect an existentialist, possibly even Lupowitz himself.
Lupowitz’s next stop is an Italian restaurant in Newark, where he questions His Holiness the Pope, who claims to have an exclusive pipeline to God. Lupowitz learns that his lovely client is actually in the science department at Bryn Mawr College. He makes further inquiries and returns to confront her with what he has learned. Her real name, he tells her, is Dr. Ellen Shepherd, and she teaches physics at Bryn Mawr. In traditional private-eye fashion, Lupowitz reveals a highly tangled plot involving Socrates, Immanuel Kant, and Martin Buber, among others. With a melodramatic flair, he names Ellen...
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