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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. Bergen, the good author, does not take us into this personal maelstrom without showing us a way out, and it isn't by the back door. I awarded this book a four-star rating because it kept my attention and offered a few humorous moments in what could have easily been just another sad and dreary tale of mid-life inadequacy. To fully appreciate the power of redemption in this novel, the reader might want to read Saul Bellow's "Humboldt's Gift".
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on November 25, 2010
I've read Bergen's books before, and this belongs among the best. His writing is spare, sensual, elegant, direct and in this book, funny. I was pleased to see him tackle a character of middle-age, as he has written at least two previous books featuring young adults. He writes about Morris with evocative prose,intelligence, interesting detail and spot on dialogue.
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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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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. Bergen has won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year three times, the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction three times, and the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award twice. These are not only amazing accomplishments but they betray the author's connection to Winnipeg where this story takes place. The 'Peg is my hometown and if you lived there you know McNally Robinson is a great independent bookstore chain battling big box and online book sellers. You would also know Margaret Laurence (my Father knew her well at United College now the University of Winnipeg) and Carol Shields too (my Mother once had the author to a book club to discuss one of her own works).

The Matter with Morris uses Winnipeg as an active backdrop in this tale. We visit the Trizez Building at Portage and Main, De Luca's restaurant (it may seem sacrilege to state but I always thought it was overrated), a French bakery in St. Boniface, Assiniboine Park's Pavilion restaurant, and the Fort Garry Hotel's lobby bar. The lobby bar is severely underrated though I think it bizarre that the current hotel owners bring their large dogs inside while the clientele tries to enjoy a cocktail and appetizer.

Bergen seems to be challenged by the city itself. Most Winnipeggers carry a love-hate for the town. There are two passages within the book that hit this fact head on. One long testy ramble includes, "This city, so humble and resigned, nearly out of breath...this city in the frozen soul of the country, a bitter and godforsaken place, not rich enough to defend itself, not important enough to require defence...". Winnipeg becomes a metaphor for Morris himself, a man subjecting himself to his own friendly fire.

The other direct jab at Winnipeg captures Morris' attempt to internalize, rationalize and make sense of his son's death, "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 and empty sidewalks." Winnipeg's sidewalks are empty, it has never been a walking city. It is too vast, dissected by two rivers and for much of the year difficult to navigate due to weather.

They say great cities are ones you walk and ones whose citizens love to read. Bergen has made a fine contribution to the latter. This is an important book for those in and from Winnipeg, those who are Canadian and have a troubled connection with the country's military, and anyone who wishes to read a novel of loss, rearrangement and gain.
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on October 17, 2014
Very very good book.
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on October 12, 2015
Great Book not the easiest read but great story
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on November 6, 2011
Bergen's Morris is an interesting and entertaining middle-aged protagonist who struggles with his son's death and the end of his marriage. Quirky in a good way, but not a book I'm telling friends is a must read.
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on November 16, 2010
Sorry to say but this novel is not as good as David Bergens previous novels. I rushed out to pick up a copy as soon as I found out it was nominated for the Giller prize, but I am disappointed with the story.
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