Matt Cohen Essay - Critical Essays

Cohen, Matt


Cohen, Matt 1942–

Cohen, a short story writer and novelist, is one of Canada's most prolific authors. In his work he examines the moral, familial, and other forces shaping the individual in rural, Protestant-dominated Ontario. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Dennis Duffy

I think I see what Matt Cohen was getting at in Korsoniloff: the farcical-pathetic adventures of a displaced intellectual backed up by a series of philosophic comments on the nature of personality…. I have to be old-fashioned again and cry that nothing keeps a reader interested like character and action, and that his man Korsoniloff is not drawn nearly dense enough to interest, nor is his philosophy especially grounded in his being. Thoughty novels succeed when the character is indistinguishable from his ideology: Ivan Karamozov, Adrian Leverkuhn (Dr. Faustus), Moses Herzog. No one expects Cohen to be in that league, but he must learn that making the thought of one person interesting to a reader is about the hardest thing to accomplish in writing, and that very few have done so. (p. 63)

Dennis Duffy, "Four First Novels Come All at Once: Alas Only One of Them Is Really Worth Seeing" (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 84, No. 11, November, 1969, pp. 58, 60, 63.∗

D.D.C. Chambers

The confusion of narrative levels in Korsoniloff is … annoying. It seems, as often as not, an excuse for incoherence, a trick from a rhetorical chest of drawers…. But the desperation that surrounds the creation of Korsoniloff, and indeed of the novel as a whole, has a [fine] madness in its creation…. It does not achieve Sternean control (though it seems to be aiming for that), but it manifests a creative sensitivity that is more than destructively facile. And more than that, for all the trival self-preoccupation and schizophrenic posing, the novel's language at least is indicative to which Korsoniloff himself pays tribute: "Control is the key. I seem to need to retain control over what I am writing."

D.D.C. Chambers, "Books Reviewed: 'Korsoniloff'," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. L, No. 593, June, 1970, p. 149.

Douglas Barbour

The Rock/drug scene which Cohen so perceptively explores [in Johnny Crackle Sings] is merely the dark forest through which the hero pursues his true quest. This quest, conveyed in a shifting kaleidoscope of styles, is Johnny Crackle's slow development of an operative defence mechanism against today's society….

The novel is about possible means of escape from the pressures, the 'bad vibes' in not only the Rock world (which is a killer economic society) but in the whole business world we know. Johnny tries many escapes, to the country, through drugs. Finally he tries withdrawal, changing the inside to avoid hassles with the outside: he achieves "condition zero" which is "the point at which everything blended so perfectly that it all cancelled out. In condition zero there was no input and no output. Just the circular rhythms of his own energy flow."…

Matt Cohen has developed his minor characters well; all the people who move about Johnny are individuals: as they participate, knowingly or unknowingly, in his quest, they take on real life. They are seen in fragments as people usually are, but Cohen orders the fragments of perception of which this book is built with methodical care for an ultimate unity. Johnny Crackle Sings is a worthwhile, entertaining, little novel, a big step forward from Cohen's first.

Douglas Barbour, "Books Reviewed: 'Johnny Crackle Sings'," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LI, Nos. 612 & 613, January-February, 1972, p. 80.

Morris Wolfe

[Johnny Crackle Sings] is the sometimes ironic story of a pop singer who, on the verge of success, gives up his career….

What Cohen seems to be attempting is the novel as a kind of catch-all. "Our minds," says a voice in the novel, "are green garbage bags." "Right on," says the reader.

The work consists of a number of fragments—some meaningful, some not—about and by the singer himself and some of those around him. The trouble is that there's no sense that those in whose heads and lives we're permitted to wander are interesting or matter to anyone including their author. (I have a bourgeois hang-up with the idea that characters should at least seem to matter to their authors.)

Most of the novel's fragments, like all of its people, are tedious. There are a number of one-liners [as well as aphorisms and lengthy sections of affected prose]….

[Alain] Robbe-Grillet says that because the world exists primarily as a chaotic presence in which past, present and future, truth and untruth are intermingled, what novelists should be doing is recording that presence. Maybe so. Certainly, that's what Matt Cohen seems to be attempting in Johnny Crackle Sings…. Unfortunately, Cohen is so self-consciously concerned with what he's doing that by the end of the novel it isn't the chaotic presence of the world that has impinged on the reader's consciousness but rather the technique and tedium of Matt Cohen's novel.

Morris Wolfe, "The World as Chaos" (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 87, No. 2, February, 1972, p. 37.

Eric Thompson

[In The Disinherited, Cohen] expands his theme imaginatively, both in spirit and in time: his new novel is an ambitious attempt to trace the disintegration of Ontario's myth of idyllic rural life, over a span of four generations.

Cohen's attitude to the decline of the Thomas partriarchy—a family whose members have farmed the rocky soil on the outskirts of Kingston for more than a century—is elegiac of their failure to survive quarrels and change. All the Thomas men have visions of their doom….

The oppressive nature of Cohen's theme is conveyed in realistic narrative, focussed around the consciousness of Richard Thomas. Confined to a hospital bed and compelled to listen to the banalities of attendants and family, his mind roams backward and forward over his past, drawing into perspective the meaning of his ancestry. Cohen's method is to present a collage of experiences which gradually coheres into a powerful vision of anticipated damnation. Moreover, he buttresses the impact of Richard's foreboding by paralleling his experiences with those of his alienated son, Erik, whose return to his father's deathbed from the city provokes latent hostility in the family.

The author, who lives on a farm near Kingston, knows his subject well. His novel is an intimate portrayal of despairing men and women living in a spent, grey landscape, often drunk on home-brewed wine, hungry for sex, and seldom knowing love. The chief flaw in the story is a rather uninteresting middle section, but the last third of the book is steadily gripping. Unforgettable, especially, are scenes involving Erik's encounter with fat, polluting tourists, and his midnight vigil with a pregnant girl as he reads from his only heirloom (the diary of "the poet," a half-crazed relative of the Thomases) and dreams of a rebelling landscape and "toppling buildings."

Eric Thompson, "The Disintegrated Idyll," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LIV, No. 649, March, 1975, p. 39.

David Jackel

In Colours of War Cohen has attempted to deal, in too short a space, with too many serious issues. Of the various questions—philosophical, historical, political, religious, familial and sexual—which the novel raises, none receives consistently effective treatment; the questions themselves are not trivial or uninteresting, but they require more sustained and careful consideration than Cohen has chosen to give them. Such consideration is certainly not encouraged by the form of the book, which is an uneasy blend of realism and fantasy, narrated by a young man whose observations are an unpredictable combination of superficiality and insight…. No doubt Cohen intended that his narrator's difficulties and...

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Linda Leith

Matt Cohen strikes me as being essentially a product of the sixties' glorification of everything experimental and innovative. He specializes in oddities. Physical freaks and psychic aberrations are so liberally sprinkled throughout his stories as to (re)create a norm of the strange, and when his subject matter is commonplace (and often when it isn't) Cohen will almost invariably be found performing stylistic and structural tricks to ensure we will never lack for signs of his experimenting spirit. The variously disturbed individuals who populate his many literary worlds are, however, surprisingly undisturbing to the reader, and it is disappointingly easy to finish Night Flights every bit as complacent as one...

(The entire section is 702 words.)

Gary T. Davenport

Cohen has published four novels as well as a good many stories; Night Flights consists of five new stories and ten selections from his earlier work. The stories seem to fall into at least three distinct modes: some are almost wholly realistic ("Vogel," "The Hanged Man," and "Brain Dust" for example); some are abstract, bizarre, and parabolic ("Heyfitz," "The Secret," "A Literary History of Anton"); and some occupy a territory between these two extremes ("Columbus and the Fat Lady," "Janice," and perhaps "Brothers"). Almost all the stories in the abstract mode are failures—not because of their difficulty (and Cohen is on the whole a difficult writer) but because they are not true works of fiction. Their author...

(The entire section is 327 words.)

George Woodcock

The Sweet Second Summer of Kitty Malone is the newest—one hopes not the final—instalment of the Salem saga.

A known terrain, familiar to readers, is … always an advantage to a novelist who sets out, as Matt Cohen has obviously done, on a career of substantial writing. And Salem, with its countryside of decaying Upper Canadian farms and its raffish inhabitants, began to make its appearance quite early in Cohen's career….

Like all figures in the Sancho Panza tradition, the typical inhabitants of Salem are survivors, and they tend also in their own strange ways to triumph over existence, so that The Sweet Second Summer of Kitty Malone goes beyond the despair of...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Jon Kertzer

[In The Sweet Second Summer of Kitty Malone, Matt Cohen] examines the Frank and Malone families, introduced in earlier stories where they appeared sporadically as misfits, drunks, idlers and fighters. They are still drunks and fighters, but because their powers are dwindling and because they haltingly, painfully question why they are misfits in their own home, they gradually gain in depth and dignity. This is a novel about middle age: it presents the loss of innocence of a man of forty-nine.

Cohen is a good storyteller and particularly deft at portraying character. He makes his plain narration and dialogue rich by interweaving flashbacks, shifts in perspective, imagery and dreams. In a brief...

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Jon Kertzer

Cohen's varied works all deal with similar problems which they attempt to solve in various but related ways. In each, the central character is a misfit, malcontent, or loser, the victim of his own faults and of circumstances beyond his control, who struggles with a question posed in The Disinherited: "how do you get to be alive?" Each character explicitly or implicitly tries to grasp and accept his chaotic life and, if possible, to master it by giving it shape and purpose. He has two tasks: to understand and to act. He must understand what his life means, what it is "to be alive," even though his experience seems so haphazard and painful. And he must act on that knowledge in order to "get" to be alive, to seize...

(The entire section is 1374 words.)

Margot Northey

The Sweet Second Summer of Kitty Malone is one of those frustrating books which is often finely written but not always compelling reading. Individual passages can be read and reread and each time appreciated for their craftsmanship, but somehow the book as a whole loses momentum. I found myself pushing my way through it, and at the end there was a feeling less of completion than of missing pieces.

Matt Cohen's return to the rural landscape of Eastern Ontario—to the rocky small farm country near Kingston—picks up the story of characters and families mentioned briefly in his earlier masterwork, The Disinherited. Kitty Malone and Pat Frank have loved and fought each other for twenty...

(The entire section is 671 words.)

Wayne Grady

Characters from Matt Cohen's fictional town of Salem, Ontario, began appearing ten years ago in the short story "Country Music," which was included in Cohen's 1972 collection, Columbus and the Fat Lady. "Country Music" builds to the death of Pat Frank, and so in a chronological sense follows the four subsequent novels in the quartet that began with The Disinherited (1974), and continued through The Colours of War (1977), and The Sweet Second Summer of Kitty Malone (1978). The cyclical nature of Cohen's work over the past decade now seems complete: in a brief author's note to his new novel, Cohen … notes that "with Flowers of Darkness the impulse that started me writing The...

(The entire section is 514 words.)