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.