Volume 91, Issue 32

Friday, October 24, 1997

cliff hanger


Elvis Last Seen in middle age

Last Seen
Matt Cohen
Vintage Canada
$16.95/212 pgs

A couple of months after his brother Andy died of cancer in 1992, Matt Cohen began fantasizing about a very strange reunion. It took place between two brothers (one living, one a ghost) who run into each other in a mysterious Toronto bar frequented by Elvis impersonators. Five years later, Cohen has filled in the details of this story to produce Last Seen, a novel that tackles the issues of mortality and middle-age with the sensitivity and dark humour typical of Matt Cohen.

Alec, a novel-writing intellectual, is devastated when his charming, worldly younger brother Howard is diagnosed with terminal cancer. After Harold's painful and humiliating death, Alec realizes he has always defined himself in relationship to Harold. Without his brother, Alec has no independent sense of identity and sinks into a life of reading obituaries and drinking Scotch. One night, ignoring his wife's advice to seek professional help for his depression, Alec seeks solace at Club Elvis, a new bar in the trendy part of town. Finding the post-mortal Harold there, Alec is given the chance to love the life he has neglected for too long, while Harold, who died angry and unreconciled to his fate, is given a second chance to achieve peace.

In parts, Last Seen recounts a powerful tale of love and loss – leaving the reader with a tremendous sense of Alec's emotional pain. Unfortunately, despite Cohen's sincerity and dashes of wit, all empathy for Alec is exhausted by the end of the novel. As Alec becomes more and more obsessed with the death of his brother and with redefining his own identity, it becomes more difficult for the reader to identify with him. The description of Alec's despair, after countless months and chapters, becomes stale and whiny. Countless fragmented reminiscences about Harold and his life of glory simply leave the reader bored.

While it is compelling at times, the emotional power of Last Seen is overdone. Cohen tackles the two obsessions foremost in the minds of baby-boomers – mortality and middle-age – and wrestles them to no satisfactory end. It is most likely because of these boomer-targeted issues that this novel has been given glowing reviews and the movie rights have already been sold. However, for readers not yet experiencing the trials and tribulations of mid-life, Last Seen is a tedious reminiscence of a past which is not their own.
–Laura Dunlop

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Copyright The Gazette 1997