Morris Schutt, the hero of Giller Prize-winner David Bergen's new novel, The Matter With Morris (just long-listed for this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize), used to be happy. Fifty-one years old, a successful newspaper columnist living in Winnipeg, he was once, in the recent past, a man with a Jaguar and a sexy psychiatrist wife. He had a pair of daughters, a grandchild and a son named Martin who smoked up too much and dropped out of university.
But then, after a fight with Morris, after being dared to do it by Morris, Martin enlists in the army. He's sent to Afghanistan and he dies there, the victim of friendly fire. The death of his son sends Morris into a tailspin; this, along with the question of whether he can pull out of it - indeed, whether the concept of recovery has any meaning at all when one is faced with such a devastating loss - is the subject of this immaculately written, trenchantly honest, hugely compelling novel.
Morris's falling-apart begins with the loss of his livelihood. Grief-stricken, he rereads the philosophical classics and begins borrowing heavily from them for his columns. "You are like a fugitive," he tells his readers. "The hardness is fixed and you are on a turning wheel, one part of you striving upwards, the other striving downwards." After that, Morris takes an involuntary leave of absence from his columns. "You're frightening people," says his agent. "Christ, you're frightening me."
One of the people who read this column on her dairy farm in Minnesota is Ursula, who has lost a son in war herself, though her boy died in Iraq. Moved by the frankness with which Morris has written about his loss, she sends him a letter. "I wanted to write it on actual paper," Ursula tells him in her letter, "using a pen, and I wanted to fold it and push it into an envelope and put a stamp on the envelope and drop it into a mailbox."
The attraction Morris feels toward her is immediate, and the two soon commence an "intelligent and flirtatious and raw" correspondence. Morris begins telling her everything, including the fact that the loss of his son has spurred in him a heightened interest in sex, "as if death had dredged up some hidden desire inside of him, as if this was a way of overthrowing his own demise." When Morris's wife, Lucille, discovers the letters, she's wounded. It makes no difference that the relationship is Platonic; for Lucille, the written intimacy, the honesty in those letters, is more shattering, more invasive, more of a transgression than its physical equivalent.
The couple separate and Morris has a series of furtive, abortive encounters, first with Ursula from Minnesota and then with a series of prostitutes. This is adequately diverting for a time, but then one of the prostitutes turns out to be a young Vietnamese woman named Leah, a girl who went to school with his late son and whom his dead son dated for a time. "He did not like his words or how they came out of his mouth," we're told. "He did not like anything about himself and he felt a moment of panic."
Still, Morris Schutt goes on. And goes on writing letters to the young Canadian soldier who accidentally killed his son, to the prime minister, to the weapon company that made the rifle. These letters, like the epigraph to the novel, connect Bergen's Morris Schutt to Saul Bellow's Moses Herzog, who compulsively writes letters to both the living and the dead. Indeed, the similarity is commented upon many times in the novel by Morris himself, to whom Herzog is a kind of inspiration. "Like Herzog, I am a survivor," he tells himself. "I will persist."
But it would be a mistake to think that this novel is an imitation in any simple sense: The references to Bellow, like the Herzogian sensibility that pervades the novel, serve to underscore the extent to which Bergen has mastered this material and made it his own, transmuted and translated into the contemporary world, into a specifically Canadian context, and infused it with new life.
As for Morris Schutt, he does persist. For all its darkness, this novel about mourning and melancholy remains an optimistic book; in it, we are presented with some of the irresolvable ambiguities of human existence by a character who is twisted up inside, who at the same time successfully asks to be recognized as sombre and tender and wise.
Toronto native Steve Hayward lives in Colorado Springs, and teaches at Colorado College. His next novel, Don't Be Afraid, will be published in January.