Here are ten short stories by the author of last year’s much-praised novel Inspired Sleep. That was Robert Cohen’s third novel; this is his first story collection. Cohen is a writer and teacher of Creative Writing at a small New England liberal-arts college. The stories here range from five to forty pages in length and deal almost entirely with “interior” themes — that is, they feature thoughtful people reflecting, for the most part not very conclusively, on their friendships, their families, their lovers, their personal histories and their own bodies. The principals are all men, mostly Jewish-American, mostly from the lower ranks of the cognitive elite: editor, radio producer, bioengineer, two college teachers.
Robert Cohen, it seems to me, writes better when he writes at length. He is a better novelist than a short story writer, and I thought the longer stories in this collection more successful than the shorter ones. Cohen is the kind of writer whose most interesting effects arise from the inner lives of his characters; and the reader needs time to “settle in” to material of that kind for full appreciation.
The best of these stories, in fact, is the longest, titled “Influence.” It is an account of what happens when Elgin Ricks, a burned-out old writer of literary fiction, is invited to give a reading of his work at a, yes, small New England liberal-arts college. The invitation has been issued by Professor Jackson, who teaches, yes, Creative Writing at the college. Jackson and his wife were both students of Ricks years before, worshippers of him in fact, when he was in his prime. The story is told in fragments, the viewpoints alternating between Jackson and Ricks, with one interpolated fragment each by Jackson’s wife and a female student who becomes entangled in the business. The whole visit develops into a mild sort of disaster. (Success, fulfilment and consummation do not figure very largely in Cohen’s work.) Ricks, who glowed so brightly in memory and anticipation, turns out to be an incontinent cynic. Scales falls from eyes, perspective shifts, and great old themes — Death of the King, Harmony Disturbed — rumble faintly in the background. It’s effective. At the end, harmony restored, Jackson muses:
I had thought too much, and acted too little, and then when I did act it was at the wrong time, in the wrong place. For years I had been observing my life through the wrong pair of eyes. No wonder it looked so blinkered, so small. Even my disasters could be read, next to Elgin’s, as pale ones.
Cohen is also, like most of us, better at plain narrative that at more adventurous formats. Where he combines brevity with adventure, the result is doubly unhappy. The five-page “Adult Education” is the weakest piece in this book. It is a dialogue between a woman newly pregnant and her equivocating lover. At least I think that’s what it’s about.
Standing somewhat aside from both my general observations is the title story, which is neither long nor strictly narrative, yet works quite well. It takes the form of a college lecture delivered by a Psychology teacher in a state of slightly unhinged distraction on account of a sex affair with his teaching assistant. It is, in fact, the story of the affair, formed as a lecture — quite funny, though smile-funny rather than laugh-funny.
Of the others, I liked best “A Flight of Sparks,” about a man who, on behalf of a dying friend, attempts to track down a love-child from that friend’s youth. Here Cohen shows at his most appealing, digging away at the place where free will, somewhat out of condition from limited exercise, meets the big intractable realities of the world, including the most intractable, most final reality of all.
I should like to lodge a mild protest about the fourth story, “The Bachelor Party,” which looks to me suspiciously like a discarded draft from the author’s second novel The Here and Now. (First sentence of chapter 2 in that novel: “Though we’d been friends for close to twenty years now, I was not looking forward to Warren Pinsky’s wedding.” First sentence of the story: “Though we have been friends for many years now, I was not looking forward to Warren Pinsky’s bachelor party.”) Possibly there is some self-referential post-modern subtlety here that is over my head. I rather hope so, as the alternative explanation would seem to involve a hasty attempt to keep the publisher’s pot boiling with a book of short stories till the next novel can be finished.