by Woody Allen
"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
The entry below will openly analyze Woody Allen's Side Effects and address specifically its possible themes, symbols and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.
Having now read two of Woody Allen's four prose collections, I must profess that I still have no idea whatsoever as to why his prose are considered essays. His "essays" feature fictional characters, absurd situations, and fictional facts, quotes and studies. I understand exaggerated non-fiction, but when you win an O. Henry I think you need to call it what it is. You can call them what you want, but for my own purposes I'm sticking with short stories.
There are two kinds of stories in Side Effects: The irreverent, and funny but ultimately unmemorable satirical sketches and the small handful of genuine short stories. The first includes the likes of Remembering Needleman, a short, mocking piece on intellectual jargon, crackpot theories and general academic bullshittery and Fabrizio's: Criticism and Response, which trashes high-brow criticism and analysis by throwing a restaurant review into absurdity ("Was Spinelli trying to say that all life was represented here in this antipasto, with the black olives an unbearable reminder of mortality? If so, where was the celery? Was the omission deliberate?").
These absurdities provide the greatest amount of humor in the collection. They're all short riffs, Allen generally being very careful not to run a joke into the ground. They're fleeting enjoyments, and I'd argue for that reason really only for the Woody Allen enthusiast.
The stories that round out the collection, such as The Lunatic's Tale and Retribution deal with Allen's typical themes. Dissatisfaction in perfection, Cosmic irony and the like. The major piece of note in this collection is, of course, Allen's O. Henry winning The Kugelmass Episode.
The Kugelmass Episode shares a plot devise with one of my personal favorite Woody Allen movies, The Purple Rose of Cairo. They also share similar themes, but while The Purple Rose of Cairo is, I believe, primarily concerned with our need for escapism, The Kugelmass Episode is more concerned with our desire for the unattainable. We've all fallen in love with a fictional character at some point, haven't we? The Kugelmass Episode argues that it is our subject of affection's innate disconnection from our lives that makes them desirable. Frankly, I'm set to start a campaign for this story to be published as a preface to each volume of the Twilight Saga.
Side Effects is a very enjoyable collection, but the Kugelmass Episode is, quite honestly, a little heartbreaking because after reading its flawless concluding sentence there is a definitive sense that you've hit the peak not only of the collection, but of Woody Allen's prose as a whole. It's not a perfect story, but its damn good. If you don't ever plan on reading Side Effects, I encourage you to at least seek out that particular story. There are full-text versions of it online if you google for them.
Up Next: Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road