‘The Matter with Morris’ by David Bergen

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

Who doesn’t love a good nervous breakdown? Morris Schutt, fifty-one, at the age when his father lost his wife, and when he has lost his son to war, has some breaking down to do.

Schutt abandons his secure life as a Winnipeg newspaper columnist and goes to ground: he liquidates all his assets into cash and stores the money in his apartment, he and his wife separate due to grief, he threatens the prime minister, he threatens his daughter’s girlfriend, and, most crucially, he diligently reads Petrarch, Cicero, Plato, Adorno, and other philosophers in order to find a way back to sanity.

Through it all is the carnal impulse: Schutt hires escorts, he has sex with his wife (before the breakup), he thinks about masturbation, he desperately wants to be wanted. Yet when he is given the opportunity for extramarital sex, he backs away from it – because at bedrock he is still in love with his wife, and wishes for reconciliation, even though breakup bitterness strangles much of his thought.

This is a novel about aging and grief, and though the cited presiding genius is Saul Bellow circa Herzog (there is an occasional epistolary interlude) the tone is more reminiscent of Philip Roth: the carnality, the long look at aging, the masculinity, the desire.

Morris is a likable middle-aged guy who is frustrated with his wants, who has people in his life who love him but who are baffled by him, and it’s the ordinariness of the protagonist that is celebrated and elevated by Bergen’s straightforward prose. Morris could be everyman (another Roth title). Bergen is trying to do what Carol Shields attempted in Larry’s Party – dramatize an ordinary life. (But Bergen is far more perceptive about maleness than Shields.) Nothing much happens in this book – the main character writes a few letters, he has the hope to reconcile with his wife, he makes a sad, half-hearted play for another grieving mother, and he misplaces his mind. The distance travelled is psychic.

Illustration by Dale Cummings

The reliance upon literature gives the book a legitimately searching feel. Morris quotes what he’s read at appropriate moments in the narrative, choice selections earmarked for Morris’s despair; and it’s these quotations that give the book its feeling of deep consideration, that the philosophy is not tacked on but actually designed for this man, of course, because it was originally designed for all of us.

There are a few problems. The narrative sags when Morris pontificates about his dead son’s friend prostituting herself – the moralizing Morris is weak and slack. So is the anti-war sentiment espoused by Morris. Whole pages could have been cut – the man is convincingly grieving throughout, but when he outlines his own pacificism the book slides into cant. The point is that despite Morris’s passion for erudition in terms of the writing he seeks out, his own opinions on the matters closest to him are expressed in the most prosaic terms.

But then there are the instances where Bergen writes beautifully, fully redeeming the very occasional lapses. These passages are always about the matter with Morris, Morris’s foibles perceptively rendered unto Morris himself. Here’s a glimpse as Morris is given a glimpse:

He thought, If man’s purpose is to flourish, to stand stalwart against the buffeting storm and find a tiny local corner in which he can thrive, then he, Morris Schutt, was failing.

But of course Morris is amidships a mid-life crisis, and he has removed himself from the buffeting storm, and he has removed himself into a tiny corner. He is succeeding, in a strange and beautiful way.

And an earlier passage, this time about Morris and his wife:

If there was any comfort to be found, it came from Morris’s perception that he himself was stronger, more resilient than Lucille, that he was capable of grieving alone.

Morris finds consolation in literature, in his bumbling adventures, in his perception that he is stronger than his wife was delusional. The first two components are legitimate, but the latter is delusion: the capacity for solo grieving is not possible for Morris. Morris needs his madness in order to understand that his grief needs other people, other grieving people. Coming at the beginning of the book, the above paragraph constitutes masterful foreshadowing.

The Matter With Morris is an enjoyable read; it possesses moments of real eloquence, featuring an ordinary character struggling to deal with the death of a loved one. Morris is memorable in his loves most of all, and honourable in his refusals, and human in his foibles. The peripheral characters all connect with Morris, all reflect off facets of Morris’s own personality, giving the narrative a strong drive despite its relative stasis. (One character, Morris’s rejected therapist, is perhaps the most compelling for the complete clarity of his purpose.) The author’s style is clear and unadorned, mimicking the style of the main character. But Morris becomes more complicated when grief has taken what it takes and left him with the repercussions of a life lived gloriously bound.

256 pages | HarperCollins | Hardcover | $29.99  | ISBN 978-1-55468-774-9

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Shane Neilson

Shane Neilson is a writer and medical doctor from New Brunswick. He published Gunmetal Blue: Essays on Poetry and Medicine with Palimpsest Press in 2010.

Copyright 2010 Great Plains Publications/Enfield & Wizenty