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Matter With Morris [Hardcover]

David Bergen
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 13 2010

Shortlisted for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize!

When Morris Schutt, a prominent newspaper columnist, surveys his life over the past year, he sees disaster everywhere. His son has just been killed in Afghanistan, and his newspaper has put him on indefinite leave; his psychiatrist wife, Lucille, seems headed for the door; he is strongly attracted to Ursula, the wife of a dairy farmer from Minnesota; and his daughter appears to be having an affair with one of her professors.

What is a thinking man to do but turn to Cicero and Plato and Socrates in search of the truth? Or better still, call one of those discreet “dating services” in search of happiness? But happiness, as Morris discovers, is not that easy to find.

David Bergen’s most accomplished novel yet is an unforgettable story with a vitality and charm and intelligence all its own. Bergen proves once again that he is one of our finest writers, dazzling us with his wit and touching us with his compassion.

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Matter With Morris + A Year Of Lesser
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Product Description

Quill & Quire

David Bergen signals a thematic and stylistic shift from his last two novels in the epigraph to his latest work. The quotation, from Saul Bellow’s idiosyncratic comic masterpiece Herzog, reads, “Oh, for a change of heart, a change of heart – a true change of heart!” The quotation captures Herzog’s incantatory evocation of high spiritual and erotic yearning brought low by typically human folly, a theme (and tone) Bergen adopts in The Matter with Morris.

The similarities don’t end there. Like Herzog’s eponymous hero, Bergen’s Morris Schutt is a successful writer who goes into emotional exile after a painful divorce all but shatters his sense of self. Holed up in a rented condominium, Morris quits his lucrative gig as a weekly newspaper columnist, takes his savings out of the bank and puts them in a safe in his living room, and writes a series of Herzogian letters to the rich, the powerful, the beloved, and the forgotten. He also pops Viagra, beds down with upscale prostitutes, and joins a men’s encounter group made up of equally messed-up mid-lifers.

That synopsis is a far cry from the plotlines of Bergen’s 2008 novel The Retreat, set during the Ojibway occupation of Anicinabe Park in 1973, and 2006’s The Time in Between (which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize), about a vet who returns to Vietnam almost three decades after his service there. Those novels, which display ambitious themes even in their portentous titles, lack much of the lively wit, candour, and awkward eroticism of such earlier books as The Case of Lena S. and A Year of Lesser.

Without overstating the point, The Matter with Morris can be read as an intriguing synthesis of Bergen’s previous works, blending the earlier novels’ focus on the suppressed lusts, rivalries, and consolations that underpin family and community with the broader, more topical concerns of The Retreat and The Time in Between. This is done by tempering the comedy with a series of interconnecting subplots stemming from Morris’s grief over Martin, his recently deceased son. Martin was a typically unmotivated middle child who dropped out of university, developed a pot habit, and, goaded by his father’s disapproving lectures, roused himself long enough to join the Canadian Army and get himself shot by a fellow soldier while on patrol in Afghanistan.

Caught in an undertow of guilt, rage, and grief-defying lust that alienates his wife and surviving grown children, Morris exchanges a series of erotically charged letters with a woman in Minnesota who lost her son in Iraq. He is also contacted by the disgraced soldier who shot his son, and sends scathing letters to an arms manufacturer and the Prime Minister, catching the attention of CSIS.

The scenes of Morris grappling with his grief and the larger ramifications of Martin’s death are realistic and touching. Morris is too cognizant of the historical/­sociological forces at work in his son’s death to completely blame himself, but guilt clings to his every thought, lacerating him for his real and imagined failures as a father and husband.

For all its allusions to Herzog, The Matter with Morris is at its weakest in the scenes that most closely mirror Bellow’s novel. Morris, who is an unabashed fan of Herzog, immerses himself in the classic works of Western philosophy and psychology in a desperate attempt to access and resurrect a more authentic, less compromised self. Unlike the brilliant Herzog, though, Morris is a hack writer with an intellect that is not exactly high-calibre. His ruminations on the Great Minds and the folly of humanity lack Herzog’s searing insight and intellectual fire.

For instance, in his letter to an armaments company CEO, Morris writes, “Are you a hypocrite, sir? Do you understand that evil is voluntary and this makes man intimately responsible?” These sentiments may be understandable coming from the mind of a grieving father, but they are not particularly enlightening. Nor are many of Morris’s supposed insights, which may make readers wish that Bergen had more fully mined the comic possibilities of Morris’s middlebrow sensibilities and his struggle to overcome them.

In his relationships with other characters, Morris acquires an undeniable vividness and depth, qualities that are often lacking from his interior monologues and letters. Morris ripples with bizarre tics and conflicting desires that erupt when confronted by the contrary needs of friends, colleagues, lovers, and family.

Luckily, Bergen has peopled his novel with a sufficient number of finely drawn characters to ensure that readers aren’t trapped alone for too long with the hapless but endearing Morris.


?David Bergen is, simply put, one of our best modern writers.?
- 2009 Writers? Trust Notable Author Award Jury ()

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More Bookish Thoughts... May 30 2011
By Reader Writer Runner TOP 50 REVIEWER
David Bergen's description of the flailing columnist, Morris Shutt, contains doses of both bitterness and fondness. Morris has lost his son, Martin, to the war in Afghanistan, his marriage has ended and his writing has morphed into dull diatribes. In the face of such upheaval, The Matter With Morris asks: where does one rediscover happiness and fulfillment? Morris seeks the answer through a variety of channels: via an American woman who religiously reads his column, by reading Plato and Cicero and in the solidarity of a male-therapy group to name a few. Bergen's strength lies in not showing his readers an easy way out, in pulling us in different directions and in leaving us to decide whether or not the protagonist achieves redemption.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars We aren't who we think we are! Nov. 14 2010
By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Yet another decent novel by Bergen on the subject of the male mid-life crisis. In this story the writer handles the often desperate life of a washed-up prominent columnist, Morris Shutt, with a healthy dollop of introspection, acerbity, and fond regard. Morris has a problem and, it is so complex and dumb-founded that for a good part of the novel, the reader finds him haplessly searching in many directions for the ever-elusive answer as to why bad things often happen to seemingly good people. Shutt is cast as a genuinely caring person, whether through the helpful advice and charity he tenders his readership or the unfortunate stranger. So where have things gone so terribly wrong for the man? Well, like Job of old, he has lost his son, Martin, in combat in Afghanistan; his marriage of twenty years or so is on the rocks; and his writing has gone flat. In other words, the world of Shutt is disintegrating before his very eyes and he doesn't know how to stop it. All the things Shutt thought were fixtures in his life are disappearing faster than the morning dew. So what is the solution? This is where the novel took off for me. For the next couple of hundred pages, Shutt seeks happiness and fulfillment from an eclectic number of places: an American woman who has become infatuated with his column; the wisdom of the great philosophers; a male-therapy group; a prostitute; his estranged daughter; his highly successful but often overbearing wife, and his sanctimonious brother. The answers he gets from them all as to why he has become so stranded are anything but helpful. They are, in fact, pulling him in many different directions with no big purpose in mind but to be caught up in someone else's problems. Read more ›
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5.0 out of 5 stars Friendly Fire Dec 1 2013
By Jeffrey Swystun TOP 50 REVIEWER
Morris is a fifty year old writer of a popular syndicated newspaper column. For material he borrows liberally from his own life. He also seeds in the stories of clients of his physician wife ("They were addicted to the material, to commerce, to the comfort of stuff."). This formula works until his life gets unbearably real when Morris gets a very 'American' knock at the door. Those knocking are two representatives of the Canadian military there to deliver the news of Morris' son's death in Afghanistan. A loss made deeper as it was a case of friendly fire.

This is not usually a subject broached in Canadian conversation (or fiction). Yet, it is an important and relevant topic. Morris and family react as many would, they fall apart. Morris spirals in his own unique, layered and fascinating way. Author Bergen writes Morris in an endearing manner even though the character makes decisions that should turn us against him. He is real and his grief entirely believable even when it borders on farce.

Morris the writer is a great observer of human behaviour (as is his creator) but is challenged to turn that lens inward. He is also quite funny, well read, and full of quirks that add authenticity. At one point he muses, "Morris wanted to be Jewish. He imagined that this might have made him a more interesting person...". This was my first novel by Bergen and he employs a style that may not engage everyone. He writes in meaty, fat paragraphs. Bergen's intent is for you to chew on every situation and to consider each carefully selected word. This is a book to read slowly.

The Matter with Morris was shortlisted for Canada's Scotiabank Giller Prize.
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