Morris Schutt is a Winnipeg-based newspaper columnist, syndicated around the world (okay, as a former journalist, that is a major stretch, but we will give the author leave) whose entire life is in a downward spiral — work, wife, family, history are all piling up on him.
Let’s start with the newspaper column, written in the first person and always ending with the signature “this is the truth”.
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. Readers responded with hopeful thoughts. They appreciated Morris’s wry take on the world, his sardonic skepticism, his “straight shooting,” his seeming annulment of the private, and his family’s apparent openness. As is the case with most columnists, readers believed that because Morris wrote in the first person, the life he described was his own. They identified with the domestic dramas, the small failures, the financial burdens, and the difficulties of family relationships. Men especially recognized themselves and wrote to Morris as if he were a friend.
If you are contemplating a career in journalism, don’t take this as a model — Mitch Alboim makes it work but no one else does. For this novel, it is rather irrelevant since Morris has been placed on indefinite leave while he sorts out the rest of his life and we don’t see many columns as the novel unfolds (“the madness trickled into his columns” and he has started to borrow thoughts from mystics).
Now 51, he has also just separated from his wife, an accomplished psychologist. Part of his response to this is that he has taken up with hookers — frankly it is not a very effective device. His teenage daughter has also taken up with an English professor so that tension also comes into play, equally uneffectively.
By far the biggest motivating factor in his decline, however, is the recent death of his son Martin, a Canadian soldier who died in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan:
And then Morris’s son joined the army as an infantryman, passed through training in Wainwright, Alberta, and within a year and a half he was deployed to Afghanistan. And he died. And everything changed in Morris’s life. His wife let her hair go grey and she stopped having sex with Morris. She confessed that at night, when she knew that her two daughters and her grandson were safely sleeping, she imagined a dark place she might run to, but there was no place far enough, there was no corner dark enough. And Morris, who had always cunningly told the world about his life, began to lose his grasp on himself.
All of those elements offer some promise for a good novel; the problem is that Bergen fails to realize them. To succeed, he needs to establish Morris as a real character and the book does anything but deliver on that. He is having a platonic affair with a Minnesota cow farmer’s wife — that line falls flat. He comes across a hooker who used to be a friend of his son and “adopts” her — that thread also falls flat. His attempts to achieve a reconciliation with his wife are equally uninteresting. And the story angle of his deceased son seems more exploitative than sincere.
All of which meant that by the time I reached the halfway point of the novel, I was pretty much disengaged. It isn’t that Bergen wasn’t trying, just that he had blown his set up. Readers of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom might want to contemplate this excerpt:
Not long after Martin died, Morris, in a painful and irrational attempt to justify his son’s death, had begun to stop people on the street and ask them, “Are your free?” It was not a casual question; in fact, it was a hard-found query, full of irony. Using the convulted logic of politicians and generals, Morris reasoned thus: (1) Freedom is everything. (2) We are in danger of losing our freedom. (3) Our freedom must be defended. (4) We must seek young men to defend that freedom. (5) The young men will die doing so. (6) But they will preserve our liberty. (7) Therefore, we are free.
I have no problem with that concept, although lining it up like that illustrates one of the weaknesses of the novel. A far bigger problem is that to carry it off, you have to give your characters some depth and engender some interest in them — and Bergen does neither.
The potential for a good novel is present in this volume — Jane Urquhart in Sanctuary Line explores some similar themes — but the realization is simply not there. If you are looking at Giller books, this is one that I would give a miss.
If I may be permitted a digression, in all the debate about the impact of ebooks and the changing nature of publishing, one of my major concerns is that the “editor” seems to have disappeared from the process. There are excellent editors in the book business, but most of them have a stable of established authors. What seems to me to be missing is that “second” rank — still excellent editors — who would say to authors like Bergen “give this one more re-write” seem to have fallen victim to corporate down-sizing. I can’t help but think that one more go at this book, with the guidance of a good editor, would have produced a far more rewarding result.