THE MATTER WITH MORRIS
by David Bergen
(September 2010, CAN $29.99, 254 pages)
A link is drawn between Morris Schutt, fifty-one year old writer and main character of David Bergen’s Giller Prize-nominated novel The Matter With Morris, and Haggai, whom Bergen’s third person narrator tells us is “a less than minor prophet [. . .] who in the Bible gets two chapters.” The image of Haggai – a silenced prophet – is a lot like Morris. Once a syndicated columnist read by people worldwide, he loses his writing contract when his thoughts turn sour. Wouldn’t yours after your son dies at war?
Indeed, the matter with Morris and the Schutt family is the death of their son and brother Martin while serving in the Canadian army in Afghanistan. The fallen infantryman haunts this text; his absence tears apart a modern family along with their aging home. Solemnly, Morris and his wife, Lucille, part by way of a death they never expected. And Morris holds squalid relations with his daughters: Meredith, a working class mother with a grudge toward her selfish father, and Libby, a distant teen too smart to be trapped by adulthood’s hypocrisy. In a touchingly realist depiction of the new millennium as war era, the Schutts are today’s army family strewn by tragedy.
Living alone in a condo, Morris is patted down by moral anguish. Museless and desperate, he focuses on his life’s worst moment: a father-son huff, daring Martin to join the army. To boot, Martin was killed accidentally by one of his own men. For Morris, it’s just as well as pulling the trigger himself.
Mentally and spiritually unhealthy, Morris copes through self-destruction. Most pertinent of all, he is hooked on a woman’s touch and hires prostitutes to relieve his inner tension. There is also Ursula, an American reader of Morris’s column who, too, lost her son to war (in Iraq). Ursula and Morris become intimate pen pals, and eventually meet. Contemplating his choices in a hotel room as Ursula sleeps, Morris yearns for the solace he is searching for. Eventually, he does declare a breaking point. Things will change, he will get his family back, even if it takes some extreme measures.
Bergen admits in Morris’s afterword to borrowing ample inspiration from Cicero, Plato, Socrates and Bellows when creating Morris’s deep philosophical rhetoric. For some readers, his pondering of freedom, humanism and rabid individualism may seem pretentious, constantly lathered on without letting the last big question settle. However, I empathise with the abstractness needed to make sense of this character’s gall-filled world.
This empathy solidifies in many scenes that war parents and families can relish in. “[Morris] had heard of the Highway of Heroes near Toronto,” Bergen writes in sardonic prose, “he wondered how it was that he had come to live in a place where a fallen soldier was driven ignominiously past warehouses and big box stores.” Revenge is also offered through Morris’s habitual letter writing, one to the Prime Minister and another to the company who manufactured the gun that killed Martin. Morris notes the absurdity of sending a letter that will never be read, nodding at Bergen’s apostrophe technique and the simple closure the act offers.
Aside from lashing outward, Morris’s hurt drives hard toward nihilistic tendencies too. His son’s death causes him so much despair, loneliness, inadequacy, guilt, and scepticism, it’s no wonder he contemplates suicide more than once. His existential traits, borrowed from Kafka and Kierkegaard, lead him to declare solitude and to have feelings of despair and worthlessness. Don’t worry Morris, we hear your story, along with the 152 lonely Canadian fathers that live it every day. It’s the bleak story of modern global politics and its disastrous impact on the family. And, it’s something Bergen obviously wants us to consider.