The first sentence reads thus:
Morris Shutt, aged fifty-one, was syndicated journalist, well liked and read by many, who wrote a weekly column in which he described the life of a fifty-one-year-old man who drove a Jaguar, was married to a psychiatrist, played pickup basketball, showed a fondness for Jewish novelists, suffered mildly from tinnitus, had sex once or twice a week depending on how much wine he and his wife drank, and who cared for his mother, a hypochondriac and a borderline narcoleptic.
This sentence introduces both to Morris the journalist and to the character he has created in his column. The first problem is that both come to be confused, merge and contaminate each other. The second problem with Morris is that he is a columnist, and as it appears in this book, he writes as if he is a journalist but since he can play with reality, and he does, the pretense of a life of a fifty-one-year-old man comes to create confusion for him and others. Following the death of his son from friendly fire in Afghanistan, his agent asks him to take a break from writing, because he his “own life has seeped too much into those columns”. This has also caused conflict within his family circle and some family members have accused him of using them in his column.
This sets the stage for a sort of breakdown. Morris and his wife separate. Morris sleeps with escorts, sells possessions, cashes in investments and puts the cash in a safe at home, takes a lover which he then rejects, and starts living like a hermit. He also takes this time to write and reconsider a lot of choices he has made and things he has taken for granted. The whole process is in effect an extended grieving period for the death of his son.
Nothing is simple in this book, most threads interact somehow, the reflections of Morris sparked by one event blend into the next one. In the end, he regains his balance and his ready to reclaim his place in the world. Here are other elements of the plot:
- He feels driving to “save” Christa, an escort who used to be a friend of his son, with whom he cannot sleep because he sees too much in her the young girl he used to know.
- He yearns for a more sustained relationship with his grandson, who he does not see much because of an ongoing conflict with his eldest daughter.
- He has a close relationship and feels great tenderness towards his youngest daughter who appears to be wise beyond her years (or to be totally innocent).
- His psychiatrist wife who seems to be cold, remote, and somewhat oblivious to how her cold sparkly intelligence can hurt others (and lacks self-consciousness).
- Morris belongs to a men’s support group and they are an odd bunch of characters.
Oh, and I never mentioned that David Bergen is a Canadian author from Winnipeg (now I have never been to Winnipeg so I cannot comment on that) and that the story is set in Winnipeg (with side trips to Minneapolis and the Shilo military base).
The first book I read by Bergen was The Time in Between for which he won the Giller Prize some years ago. Then I read The Retreat which was about a family who move into some kind of derelict camp which was supposed to be used for retreats. I do not remember the details of the plots of either. What I do remember is the haunting sadness of some characters, the bleakness of the atmosphere at time, and the growing sense of hope at the end. The same rhythm and atmosphere exists in The Matter With Morris but in a different social setting and location. Bergen is very good at depicting sadness, depression, and alienation but also the sudden climb out of it, not as an explosion of relief, joy or ecstasy, but as a slow unfolding of dew-covered petals in the morning.
Bergen, David. The Matter With Morris, Harper Collins, Toronto, 2012.
Bergen, David. The Retreat. McClelland Stewart, Toronto, 2008.
Bergen, David. The Time in Between. McClelland Stewart, Toronto, 2005.