The Matter with Morris, by David Bergen

Review copy courtesy Wordfest

For this reader, The Matter with Morris is the same “matter” that I have had with author David Bergen’s two previous novels — he does a great job of setting the novel up and then heads in a direction that completely befuddles me. I was not a fan of his 2005 Giller prize-winner The Time In Between and found The Retreat (2008) even more lacking. For me, this novel has the same flaw; I am rather surprised that it made the 2010 Giller longlist.

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.

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14 Responses to “The Matter with Morris, by David Bergen”

  1. Craig D. Says:

    Re: last paragraph

    Nevermind ebooks; this has already happened with print. Just go to the bookstore and look at any given bestseller. Writers are so unbelievably self-indulgent these days, and editors seem to be totally out to lunch. Sometimes it’s because an author is established and editors don’t feel a need to do their job since the book is guaranteed to sell based on name recognition (Stephen King, J. K. Rowling), but so many books these days, even by first-time authors, are hyped up before they’re published, and you end up with the same situation. Why edit an 800-page phone book when it’s already pre-sold a million copies? Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian” and Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” are two prime examples. Nevermind that the writing in both of these books is awful; even if they were Hemingway, they would each still be at least 300 pages too long.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Craig: I’ll admit that both the examples you cite don’t fit my tastes, although some people obviously like them. And I do agree that there seem to be a lot of first novels where the marketing strategy seems to take precedence over the actual content. What troubles me about the Bergen book is that it did come close to being a very worthy effort.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    This sounded quite good at first, but then came those threads that “fall flat.” Too bad really as it sounds as though the book had some things going for it.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: My comments are probably more negative than they should have been. I wanted the book to succeed and thought the premise had promise — I find when I get frustrated in those circumstances I have a tendency to be overly critical. Having said that, I do think others would find the same shortcomings.

  5. Tom C Says:

    British book lovers also lament the demise of the editor – its a skilled job, very different from proof-reading and even that gets dropped in the rush to get to print as quickly and cheaply as possible.

    I won’t bother with this book as you obviously didn’t enjoy it very much!

  6. Guy Savage Says:

    Kevin: You are usually quite generous in your reviews–or so it seems to me, and that generosity encompasses the idea that while you didn’t like or found fault with a book, doubtless there are other readers who won’t have the same reaction. In this case, the last quote nailed it for me.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: I read a fair bit of British fiction and would agree that the role of the editor also seems to be declining there. I fully appreciate the economic and market challenges that publishers are facing, but I can’t help but wonder if fewer, but better, published books might be part of the answer. I suspect that is why a number of smaller publishers who focus on quality, often with translated works, (e.g.Melville House, Peirene, Pushkin, New Directions), are finding a devoted audience.

    Guy: It was that quote that led me to conclude “this novel cannot be saved.”

  8. kimbofo Says:

    Another Canadian book with reference to Afghanistan? Is there some collective guilt going on? Or some hard-hitting criticism of the war and Canada’s involvement? I doubt very much if any book from the UK will even dare touch this issue in fiction — at least not in the present situation.

    Interesting that the story features a “journalist” — although I’m not a fan of columnists, because, to be honest, it’s not really journalism, is it? It’s opinion. And what are bloggers but columnists with a worldwide audience?

    Anyway, can’t say this book has piqued my interest, even with the journalistic element. But thanks for the honest review.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    You know I love books about journalists, but even given that positive bias I found this one lacking.

    I too wondered about two novels referencing deaths of troops in Afghanistan. My explanation is that this is the first conflict since the Korean War for Canada — so it is an experience that the country’s fiction writers have not been through before. As well, the current military practice of “embedding” inexperienced, gullible reporters (rather than having experienced foreign correspondents cover it only) has produced a number of fawning accounts about the Canadian forces. My guess is that the novelists are fully aware there is another side. Urquhart probably found modern echoes of elements of The Stone Carvers (see my response to your comment on that thread); Bergen’s Giller winner was about a Canadian who had fought with the U.S. in Viet Nam — so I’d say both had reasons (at least in their heads) to include Afghanistan in their novels.

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That last quote really doesn’t work for me.

    For me, for someone to be doing that they’d have to be in a complete breakdown. It is after all describing someone who stops strangers at the street and asks them nonsensical questions.

    I’ve encountered people like that, most of us have, they’re usually a long way from anything anyone would want to be. Is that reflected?

    Does it address the responses? I suspect people would be frightened by him, by this crazy person who accosts strangers.

    Perhaps I’m overthinking it, but I’m not convinced.

    On the editing issue, Craig is right I think about the superbooks (in terms of sales I mean). It’s noticeable that when series’ writers get hypersuccessful the later books in the series get bigger. It’s partly market demand I think, the buying public for these books associate volume with value, but also I think a shift of power from editor to author. The first Harry Potter, which I read but didn’t take to, was relatively slim and about what you’d expect from a children’s book. The latter ones were behemoths making Franzen and Seth look restrained. Rowling is far from alone in that.

    I hope the publishers that are choosing to pursue fewer, but better, books succeed. They’ll not make millions, but they may get a dedicated following and at least publish books worth reading. I suspect that’s what most publishers go into the business hoping to do anyway, it can’t be for the money.

  11. emilyluxor Says:

    Hello Kevin,

    Really enjoyed reading your review althought I have not read ‘The matter with Morris’ and I don’t want to anyway because I don’t particularly like David Bergen’s style or content or his particular biases. I read his short story collection first, and found a disturbing tendency toward the objectification of women, and it was heightened moreso when I read A year of lesser. SOmehow, Bergen cannot write women characters without making them wholly victims of their emotions or their hormones. So, I wasn’t surprised when I read early descriptions of ‘Morris’ with the ‘sexy’ psychologist wife (puhleeze) and Morris’ frquenting of prostitutes. That seemed to me to be gratuitous and now that I read your thoughtful words, falling completely flat as a story device.

    I did try to go back to Bergen (I’m a Manitoban too) and I read The Retreat, but that was a waste of time.I think you nailed it when you said, he starts out with a great premise or beginning and then you wonder where or why he ends up where he does.

    About the quality of writing, and need for editing and revision and re-revision, I agree wholeheartedly. What saddens me is , I went to a lecture given by David Bergen at the University of Winnipeg, just before Morris was published, I think, and he went to huge lengths to describe how Bellow and JOhn Updike influenced him and how he wanted to create fiction that incorporated elements of Bellow in particular. But I don’t think the craftsmanship of either of those writers impressed Bergen much, knowing in particular, that Updike was frequently edited quite harshly by his New Yorker editors. You would think Bergen would have sought the same.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Emily: I will admit that most of this book has faded from memory and I had to re-read the review. I was not a fan of The Retreat either. You have had more exposure to Bergen than I have had — so I will just say thank you for your observations.

  13. David Says:

    As you note in your last reply, Kevin, you’ve largely forgotten this book now, but I just thought I’d have a look what you made of it. I’m about 100 pages in and seriously considering abandoning it which is something I rarely do. I read two of Bergen’s novels last year – ‘The Age of Hope’ and ‘See the Child’ and thought both were very good, especially his central characters. Hard to believe ‘The Matter with Morris’ was written by the same author – it’s completely unengaging, even boring, and I don’t care one bit about Morris. He is so insubstantial that I keep forgetting how many children he has and what they are called – twice I’ve been confused by lines only to realise I’m thinking of a character from a (infinitely superior) Russell Banks short story I read a couple of days ago.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      This one also made it to the IMPAC shortlist in 2012 — so some readers obviously found things in it that passed me by completely. I’ll admit that it quelled my limited taste for Bergen and I did not pick up The Age of Hope when it appeared last year.

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