My experience reading David Bergen runs the gamut. When I first read The Time in Between, I felt disengaged from the story. Years later, stuck in a waiting room with The Matter with Morris (2010), I recognized layers to his storytelling which I’d missed before. With The Age of Hope (2012), I fell hard for his sustained focus on a woman’s life. And Stranger (2016) was such an engrossing read that I neglected the rest of my stack and read until I finished.

Several of the stories in this collection have been previously published. (“Never Too Late” and “Saved” in The Walrus, “April in Snow Lake” in Prairie Fire, “Leo Fell” in Toronto Life, and “How Can n Men Share a Bottle of Vodka?” won the CBC Story Prize and was published in Saturday Night. “Hungry” was in Hobart, nominated for a Pushcart Prize

Bergen is preoccupied by the complexity which influences and spirals out from simple choices. Consider “April in Snow Lake”:

“The thing is, I could have gone in and she would have been fine with that. But she seemed to be fine with me not joining her as well. At that time in my life, at that moment, I could make no sense of how to choose. And so I stepped away from the door and I walked back to my motel room. Two weeks later I left Snow Lake.”

His keen sense of irony contributes a satisfying whirr beneath the surface of his stories. Consider this familiar scene (from “Hungry”, one of my favourite stories): “There are all these beautiful clean objects on the desk. Beakers, sticks, cotton balls, a little black bed with paper laid out over it in case you’re bleeding and shit. A poster on the wall showing pink lungs and black lungs and at that point I want a cigarette.”

This is not a story designed to make you snicker, but this human contradiction provokes a smile of recognition. Similarly, the language of beginnings and endings is unremarkable, but often unexpectedly moving. Like the opening of “Leo Fell”, which invites questions: “The day Marianne found out she took a swing at him.” And the closing of “Man Lost”, which offers closure: “Their voices at play were like the sounds birds make in the morning, when all is new and there is only time and more time for the day to unfold.”

There’s not a lot of dialogue and what remains unsaid also matters, like this bit in the novella, “Here the Dark”: “‘I won’t come back,’ Marcie said, and Lily believed her, and she wondered what that would be like, to not come back.” It’s Lily’s silence, her wondering, that matters more. But if Marcie hadn’t left, Lily wouldn’t have even been able to wonder. Sometimes this kind of wondering is what passes for action in these stories. If you’re not big on wondering, you might not be big on Bergen’s stories.

After winning the 2005 prize (in a year when I was rooting for Joan Barfoot’s Luck), Bergen was on the jury in 2007. In 2010, The Matter with Morris was shortlisted and, in 2016, Stranger was longlisted. He’s got Giller pedigree for sure. But the other short story collections nominated this year, Kaie Kellough’s Dominoes at the Crossroads (2020) and Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife (2020), represent fresh perspectives on the storytelling scene, which this year’s jury might respond to more keenly. [Edited to add that Bergen’s book has progressed to the shortlist.]

Inner workings
Bergen’s stories proceed at a languorous pace. His authorial decisions are craft-driven, not audience-driven.Even when characters are en route to the ER, details about their transportation plans are an opportunity to build characterization (i.e. demonstrate class, privilege, social skills, outward presentation). In instances where characters’ experience of the outer world is limited, their restricted view presents a skeletal and flat narrative.

The vocabulary is unusual enough that the prose doesn’t feel stark, but the sentence structure is direct and deliberate. Sometimes punctuation, alone, modulates mood. Consider the absence, then presence, of commas in this pair of sentences: “Over the next three days, Bev and a neighbour boy who was all arms and acne rounded up bull calves and together they branded and inoculated and castrated. The skies were clear, the sun shone, the world was endless.”

Whether a doctor’s office or a farmer’s field, the settings of these stories are not incidental, but neither are the characters preoccupied by place.
These stories unfold primarily against a backdrop of hearts and minds.

The characters in these stories are busy living their own lives; they don’t have time for your questions and might not even acknowledge that you exist. In the space between each paragraph, readers could lose their patience. Sometimes time passes quickly, scenically, but other times the weight of an entire existence settles in: “The seasons spun around like the Lazy Susan on Johan’s mother’s dining-room table.”

Readers Wanted
When you travel on public transit, you imagine entire lifetimes for the people seated nearby, spiralling around details that you know someone else would dismiss immediately.
You stare too often and for too long.

This book is a nominee for the 2020 Giller Prize. This post follows a format I first used in 2012. Prizelists invite readers to peer more closely at current publications; they can spark conversation, draw attention to hard-working writers, and encourage readers to look beyond these lists to the many, many other works of quality that are not included on longlists. Reading the longlisted books represents less than 5% of my year’s reading. Read widely and share your favourites!