The Matter with Morris by David Bergen (2010) HarperCollins Canada (2010) 256 pp
My second stop on this year’s Giller shortlist is David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris. Bergen won the Giller in 2005 for The Time in Between, and he was shortlisted in 2008 for The Retreat. The other authors on this year’s shortlist are all first-time Giller finalists. None has ever been on the longlist, either. In fact, other than a short story collection here (Winter) or a book of poetry there (Skibsrud), the other finalists are new authors in the book publishing world. Bergen is the heavy-weight, the seasoned professional. Yet, without having read three of the five finalists, I suspect Bergen’s book to the be the weakest on the shortlist.
First things first: Bergen’s writing is not showy and it is fluid. Though a novel of abstract ideas, the writing remains clear. That’s a plus from my perspective. Bergen has honed his skill to the point where he is not in the way of his story. But the story is where the problem lies.
Morris Schutt is a successful syndicated newspaper columnist based in Winnipeg. “Morris longed for the true and the beautiful and the good in his column, and though he could not be certain, he anticipated that we are saved by hope.” When the novel starts, it is 2007, and Morris is 51 years old. Despite his idealistic aspirations in his column, his life is falling apart around him, starting nearly two years earlier when his son Martin was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Morris is going on the far side of middle age, and he isn’t sure what his life means. In the beginning, when reading about Morris Schutt as he became increasingly erratic and alienating, I thought often of Julian Treslove in The Finkler Question, not least because of this passage:
Morris wanted to be Jewish. He imagined that this might have made him a more interesting person; more spontaneous, passionate and complicated, though Lucille had already called him complicated in the extreme. (She said his desire to be Jewish as a secret wish for tenderness and affection. “You’re isolated, Morris. You think that love is over there somewhere, close to the menorah. But maybe it’s right in front of your Russian Mennonite nose.”) She might be right, Morris thought, but she didn’t have to be so smug.
But this story doesn’t go anywhere near where The Finkler Question did (nor does it have the humor, the style, or the intricate texture). In fact, that Morris wanted to be Jewish amounts to, essentially, nothing. It is stated, brought up a few times, but becomes a non-issue, just an extraneous detail that doesn’t illuminate the subject. Morris does admire Jewish writers, and Bergen references Saul Bellow frequently throughout the book. Morris himself likes to write letters (he is twice called upon by very different, unconnected individuals to write an important personal letter that each would then pass off as his own), so we understand that we are to be thinking of Moses Herzog. To what end, though, I was unable to discern, unless it was so that Saul Bellow’s creation could stand in, when convenient, for David Bergen’s.
The Matter with Morris is replete with events and references which don’t seem to connect and are never really developed. The central emotional event is the death of Morris’s son, but this almost seems a plot device to get to some other plot devices. In their grief, Morris and his wife Lucille have separated, Morris has taken to prostitution, and Morris has decided to quit being a columnist — he will withdraw all of his money from the bank, cash in all of his stock, and disconnect himself from the world entirely. At about the time he does this, he schedules a night with a prostitute only to find that the girl who comes knocking is an old friend of his son’s. In the background, and sometimes in the foreground, Morris has a platonic affair with an American woman who also lost a son recently. She read and was touched by a self-indulgent, self-pitying column Morris wrote about his son.
Why doesn’t this all add up to an interesting story? Because none of the threads is developed and none crosses over. We’ll follow one, say the prostitute Morris decides to take care of, but it ends as if the idea fizzled (I don’t think the book, already quite short, would have been the lesser for removing this thread altogether). We’ll then follow another thread for several pages, say the American lover, but then it also goes nowhere, moves into the deep background, as if it is forgotten; and certainly the reader can feel free to forget about it — it doesn’t illuminate anything going on in the foreground. Not one strand, including the son’s death in Afghanistan, is followed for very long before another comes up and assumes the importance of the moment, and not one strand effectively connects to another.
I don’t believe the absolute disconnect was on purpose. It doesn’t seem like a technique meant to emphasize grief. If so, it certainly doesn’t illustrate grief well. Rather, it seemed we were supposed to accept the grief Morris is experiencing and somehow accept his behavior and thoughts as a reaction to or defense from the grief. Then this is supposed to illuminate the deeper philosophical themes that present themselves in the form of brief quotations from their primary source.
Throughout the novel, Bergen quotes or clearly references several religious and secular texts. At the end of the book, he includes this incomplete list: Plato, Cicero, Petrarch, Dante, Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, Boehme, Adorno, Tillich, Strauss, Nieburh, Allan Bloom, Eagleton, Bellow. Many of the passages are italicized, like this one:
She was prepared, like Telmon, who said, I knew, when I fathered them, that they must die.
Sadly, the presence of all of these voices, all of these thoughts on existence and aesthetic unity, lends nothing to The Matter with Morris because The Matter with Morris cannot support their presence. There is an important lesson here: If you want gravity in your book, you cannot incorporate it by reference.
I’m baffled by the presence of this novel on the Giller shortlist.