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.

A Giller shortlist that could make a curmudgeon squee

October 6, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Apologies for being tardy to the party, but yr. humble correspondent has been out celebrating. As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist was announced at a press conference in Toronto yesterday. Two thirds of this year’s jury, Claire Messud and Michael Enright, were on hand (the third juror, Ali Smith, was unable to attend), and announced their choices for the final five with dignity and poise. The same could not be said of one frequently bitter and acerbic member of the audience, who, tucked away in the back corner of the room, was almost turning cartwheels as each successive name was read.

Basically, this year’s jury delivered my dream shortlist, a group of books that favour small presses over large, new names over old, and a startling array of genres and approaches. The shortlist in full:

  • The Matter with Morris by David Bergen (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod (Biblioasis)
  • This Cake Is for the Party by Sarah Selecky (Thomas Allen Publishers)
  • The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau Press)
  • Annabel by Kathleen Winter (House of Anansi Press)

In case you’re keeping track, that makes two collections of short stories (both from debut authors), and two first novels. Four of the five books are published by small or medium-sized presses, all of which are Canadian owned.

Even the one heavy hitter, David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris, is something of an anomaly. The novel, which has been compared favourably to Saul Bellow’s Herzog, sees the author eschewing the ponderous heaviness of his most recent books, The Time In Between and The Retreat in favour of a more comic mode and a more personal story. The book is a return for Bergen, in more ways than one. On the publishing side, it marks a return to HarperCollins, Bergen’s early publisher, after a handful of books with McClelland & Stewart. One of those, The Time in Between, nabbed him the Giller in 2005, meaning he’s not only the lone member of this year’s finalists to be making a return appearance at the gala dinner, he’s also in the running to join Alice Munro and M.G. Vassanji as one of the only authors ever to win the prize twice.

I wouldn’t lay any money on that outcome, however. If this year’s jury has proven anything at all, it’s that they are beholden to no orthodoxy, and willing to toss all accepted verities to the wind. We could still see a repeat of 2006, when the lone book from a multinational house walked away with the prize, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely. At the very least, there is no clear frontrunner this year, which means that the November 9 broadcast of the awards ceremony should be an exciting affair (for a change).

There have been rumblings of concern from booksellers who fear that the smaller houses such as Biblioasis and Gaspereau Press won’t be able to supply sufficient stock to satisfy customer demand for the shortlist. Skibsrud’s book, which was published in 2009, is already out of stock at many locations across the country, and although publisher Gary Dunfield told Quill & Quire that the company planned to reprint, they were busy printing their fall books, which makes scheduling an issue:

According to Dunfield, the press is going to do everything it can to capitalize on the nomination, but it can’t afford to postpone forthcoming titles. “That would be a very bad idea,” he says.

This is a problem for small houses nominated for big prizes: in some cases, the nomination actually costs them money. For all the talk of a “Giller effect,” it isn’t clear that people will buy the entire shortlist (despite Jack Rabinovitch’s annual claim that the shortlist can be purchased for the price of a meal in a Toronto restaurant). Most people seem to wait for the winner to be announced, then buy that book alone. Not surprisingly, publishers of this year’s nominated titles are being cautious in the size of their reprints.

The other problem this year will be in marketing the prize itself. There are no household names on the list; instead of trumpeting the iconic status of the authors, the people promoting this year’s prize will need to introduce these authors to the book-buying public. This is not a bad thing, but it does mean that they have their work cut out for them.

But one thing a prize of Giller’s stature should accomplish is broadening the focus of Canadians’ ideas about their national literature, and encouraging the literary heterogeneity that frequently goes unnoticed amidst the clamour of blockbuster books and celebrity authors. On this score, the 2010 Giller jury has done a remarkable job. It isn’t an overstatement to say that this is the most exciting shortlist in the prize’s 17-year history.

Once again, I will read (or in MacLeod’s case, reread) the five shortlisted books. The difference this year is that instead of staring down this task with a sense of encroaching dread, I approach it with anticipation and delight. All thanks to this year’s runaway jury for giving an inveterate curmudgeon something to smile about.