David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris
Harper Collins, 2010

You might have guessed that David Bergen’s The Time in Between wasn’t my favourite book from the Giller Prize shortlist of 2005. It wasn’t that I disliked it, so much as I felt disconnected from it. It felt like a universal story that I should have been able to feel more keenly, and instead I slipped through the gaps in the sparse prose: a reader disengaged.

What’s strange is that I can see where I might have had the same response to The Matter with Morris. Its prose style is similar (just the bare bones, journalistic, which suits Morris) and  its main character is one with whom I have no natural affinity, which, given that it’s an interior novel with no plot developments to distract, is more of a potential deal-breaker than it might be otherwise. Even The Time in Between had two narrative perspectives for variety: David Bergen’s newest novel is All Morris All the Time.

So there I am, stuck with Morris, in a waiting room with nothing else to read. No setting to sink into, no figurative language to entertain, no snappy dialogue, and me thinking I’d have nothing in common with this 51-year-old man, freshly grieving, freshly divorced, the rest of his life stale-stale-stale. (And feeling sure that, given my lacklustre response to The Time in Between, the author wasn’t likely to win me over on voice alone like, say, Doug Harris did so resoundingly with You comma Idiot, which should have been impossible too.)

But instead of slipping through the spaces that swelled behind the stark prose in The Matter with Morris, I found those spaces filling with an unexpected depth of emotion.

“Nobody wants to read about unhappiness.” That’s the advice Morris gets from his agent, who suggests that he take an undetermined amount of time off, because his columns have taken a dark turn, since the death of his 20-year-old son, Martin, in Afghanistan. Morris is stunned.

He would have gotten along better with Gabe English from Michael Winter’s This All Happened, who said that “[h]appiness is too hard to write and boring to read.” But maybe not. Wouldn’t that suggest that unhappiness is easy to write and exciting to read? And neither Morris’ columns, nor David Bergen’s novel The Matter with Morris fit that bill.

One might think that David Bergen’s unadorned style is easy to write, but it’s hard work making any craft look easy. Simple sentence structure and clear expression can take as many crafting hours as complex phrasing and lyrical prose. It’s true that I immediately felt a stylistic similarity to that earlier novel of his, and now I’m wondering what I missed, whether I didn’t simply read too quickly and too superficially, because I’ve taken time with this novel and I see layers here that I didn’t recognize in The Time in Between.

And not only layers. But interconnections. If I was surprised to find myself drawn into David Bergen’s novel, I was shocked to find it the perfect reading companion for Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

I wish the Berglunds could ask Morris Schutt to dinner; he’s alternately confused about/directed in his attempts to repair fractured relationships, he’s throwing up his arms in frustration in his attempts to answer the biggest human questions, he’s simultaneously overtaken by intense emotions and by the need to repress them, and he has been devastated by losses (realized more concretely in Franzen’s The Corrections, but presaged in Freedom). And Morris isn’t entirely comfortable talking to the people who most profoundly share his grief: talking to the Berglunds might help.

Honestly, when we met, I was sure that Morris should have chosen someone else to read his story. Not only was I disinclined, but when he listed his favourite authors (having pared down his collection to fit into a more compact living space) three dozen pages later, I realized we had even less in common than I’d expected.

I might have reached for some kind of kinship on the basis of bookishness (“All necessary companions” he calls them), and words are vitally important to him (not only in his journalism, but he proposed to Lucille because she used two words that caught his attention on the day they met casually).

But here are his essential writers: “Adorno, Babel, Bellow, Buber, Coetzee, DeLillo…Kinkaid, Kosinski, Lessing, McCarthy, Nabokov, Niebuhr, O’Connor…Roth, Updike, et cetera.” Some of those are on my Admired-Not-Adored list, but many of them are on my Just-Not-My-Thing list.

And then there’s the fact that he is going through such a horrible time.

The man’s in a crisis: he’s not at his best. He makes some questionable decisions, he leaves a letter where he shouldn’t and people get hurt, he sends an angry letter to the Prime Minister and that gets complicated, he gets carried away in the moment, he interferes with his daughter’s love life, he puts his grandson down for a nap when he shouldn’t have. He…

doesn’t do anything all that terrible, really. He makes mistakes and he tries to figure out what to do about them. He tries to figure out what to do about forgiving other people for mistakes that they have made. He tries to figure out how to make fewer mistakes.

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I don’t know why I thought I wouldn’t have anything in common with Morris. It doesn’t seem, now, like I had very good reasons.

I don’t know what went wrong with my reading of David Bergen’s 2005-Giller-Prize-winning novel, The Time in Between. I think, now, that I made a mistake.

I do know this novel will not be to every reader’s taste. And I know it might not have been to my reading taste on another reading day.

But I also know that this story, Morris’ story, got to me right in the dark part where stories hit when they’re all about their characters, but also all about you, and all about every single person you know all at the same time.

IFOA 2010

And that’s a good feeling.

Have you had a turn-about with an author recently?

Have you read The Matter with Morris, or any of the other five novels shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize?

Companion Reads:
Carol Shields’ Unless,
Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom
Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost