Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010, Book 2

November 5, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The Matter with Morris. David Bergen; $29.99 cloth 978-1-55468-774-9, 260 pp., HarperCollins Canada.

Previous Giller wins/noms: The Time in Between (winner, 2005)

Other awards: Margaret Laurence Book of the Year Award (The Retreat, 2008)

McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award (The Retreat, 2008)

McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award (The Time in Between, 2005)

Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award (The Case of Lena S., 2002)

Governor General’s Literary Award (The Case of Lena S., 2002, nominee)

McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award (A Year of Lesser, 1996)

From the publisher: The Matter with Morris is a brilliant dissection of one man’s crisis and the family that refuses to let him go.”

From reviews: “The references to Bellow, like the Herzogian sensibility that pervades the novel, serve to underscore the extent to which Bergen has mastered this material and made it his own, transmuted and translated into the contemporary world, into a specifically Canadian context, and infused it with new life.” – The Globe and Mail

“At one point, Morris thinks about how life remains a narrative without a moral or a lesson. ‘There was no grand arc of a story,’ he muses, and that may just be the way things are, but when there’s no grand arc of a story in a story, then readers legitimately become restless. This is part of Bergen’s problem. His novels have always had a slice of life feel to them, but little sense of deepening conflict and inevitable resolution – they have lacked the ‘grand arc of a story.’ In The Matter of Morris, where the narrative, in Moses Herzog fashion, is so much bound by the narrator’s unaccountable thoughts and actions, this lack of a grand arc becomes especially troublesome.” – Philip Marchand, National Post

“Just when it seemed like the subject of the war’s impact on families had grown barren, The Matter with Morris approaches the subject anew with a depth of human understanding and compassion. If only the author could have done it alone.” – Toronto Star

My reaction: Morris Schutt, 51-year-old Winnipeg newspaper columnist, pacifist, and Jaguar driver, is devastated by the news that his 20-year-old son Martin has been killed in Afghanistan. Wracked with guilt (Morris thinks that it was an argument between father and son that convinced Martin to enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces in the first place), Morris navigates the dissolution of his marriage, a vicious case of writer’s block, and a possible affair with an American woman who has lost her own son in Iraq.

This is weighty thematic material, but it is to Bergen’s credit that the novel never feels lugubrious; there is a sharp strain of humour running through the book, predicated in large part upon the ironic distance between Morris’s inflated opinion of himself and the reality of his intellectual limitations. A self-professed fan of Bellow’s Herzog (which forms a kind of simulacrum for Morris’s own narrative), Bergen’s protagonist writes angry letters to the prime minister and to the CEO of Colt Canada, steals a handgun from his would-be American lover, and tries to find solace in the work of Plato, Cicero, and Socrates. But Bellow’s eponymous hero was a highly intelligent man; Morris is not possessed of such a refined intellectual sensibility.

This disconnect is frequently played for comedic effect. Take, for example, an exchange between Morris and a high-class escort he’s ordered, who turns out to be one of his son’s school friends:

“But even with the fat wallet and everything it can buy, you for instance, I am still the young boy who peeks through a keyhole watching the world at work. In another time, another era, I would be the dirty old man at the peep show. The one eye of yearning, the narrow glimpse. And so I plod along, aware that others might wag their fingers at me. Outside opinion. It weighs me down. Are you enjoying this?”

“You’re funny, Mr. Schutt. I don’t have a clue what you’re saying, but I love the way you talk.”

“I was just thinking about you. How your voice slips down my ear canal.”

She chuckled. “See? Like that. You say strange things.”

If the novel at times relies too heavily on its literary antecedent, this does not ultimately distract from the essential poignancy of Morris’s situation. His attempts to grapple with the problem of meaning in a world in which his son’s life can be snuffed out instantly by a bullet accidentally fired from a comrade’s gun are paradoxically made all the more moving by being filtered through the comic aspect of his intellectual struggles. The novel succeeds precisely because it refuses to descend into a maudlin meditation on war or loss or memory. Bergen addresses all of these subjects, but does so with a deft touch and a clear understanding of the conflicting forces at work within his lead character.

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