Matt Cohen Gary T. Davenport - Essay

Gary T. Davenport

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 obviously has no real interest in the characters, events, and places of these stories except as they can be made to serve thematically. The other two types (the realistic and the partly realistic) can indeed be masterpieces in Cohen's hands. (pp. xx-xxi)

Cohen's chief thematic concerns are time and the nature of reality, and his style is often intentionally repetitive and cyclical—as in "Columbus and the Fat Lady," in which he effectively creates the impression that the events of the story have neither beginning nor end. The reader frequently finds himself asking whether something is really happening or is only the delirium of this or that character's distorted mind. (And Cohen has depicted his share of distorted minds.) Of course the narrative technique treads a thin line here, and it is sometimes uncertain, sometimes masterful. The author's control of language is one of the most gratifying features of his work. The ease, for example, with which he delineates a minor character in a single stroke sometimes recalls Flannery O'Connor….

Brevity is the soul of wit for Matt Cohen…. (p. xxi)

Gary T. Davenport, "A Canadian Miscellany," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1979 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVII, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. xix-xxii.∗