The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

The Matter with Morris by David Bergen

Reviewed by Allan Hepburn

David Bergen
The Matter with Morris
. HarperCollins 2010                                256 pp.
                                                                                           $29.99

The Matter with Morris begins with a long remarkable sentence that touches on the essential details of Morris Schutt’s life, including the kind of car he drives, his wife and her job, and his favourite novelists. A syndicated newspaper columnist, Morris has all the outward signs of success. Yet, at 51, he has begun to lose a grasp on himself.

Grief undoes Morris: his son Martin is dead—dead in Afghanistan, dead because of friendly fire, dead at 20, dead and cremated, dead. Morris blames himself for Martin’s death because he suggested, in a moment of anger, that Martin join the army. When Martin is killed, Morris cuts off access to the world: no email, no cell-phone. He disconnects his television and hides it in a closet. After cashing out his savings, he stashes packets of money in a safe, but takes the precaution of hiding some under his bed and taping $10,000 to the back of his fridge.

As a novel about loneliness, The Matter with Morris belongs to a Canadian tradition that includes As for Me and My House, Swamp Angel, Swann, and The Shadow-Boxer. It takes its just place alongside these novels. Morris, however, assuages his loneliness not by the usual means of isolating himself in a lighthouse in northern Ontario or walking along a railroad track in the Prairies. Instead, he hires escorts, mostly young women, one of whom turns out to be a school friend of Martin’s. He reads Saul Bellow’s Herzog and Plato’s Republic in search of answers to existential questions. He stops people in the street to ask them, “Are you free?” (10). As if grief can be compared or diminished by sharing, he corresponds with a woman in Minnesota who lost her son in the Iraq war. They discuss their fear and pain in a series of letters, but this exchange does nothing to break Morris’s sense of isolation and fear. No measure, however radical, consoles him for the loss of his child.

Morris’s solitude is a willed condition. While he wonders how other people use their freedom, he applies his own to the negative end of being alone. He even imagines that he is stronger because solitary: “If there was any comfort to be found, it came from Morris’s perception that he himself was stronger, more resilient than Lucille, that he was capable of grieving alone” (29). Such comfort helps no one but Morris: it begins and ends with him. For this reason, Morris’s wife Lucille calls him selfish. By the same token, grief is intensely personal in its effects. The death of a loved one never strikes two people exactly the same way. Neither the intensity nor the duration of mourning can be guessed. Seeking the consolations of philosophy, Morris reads Petrarch and Cicero. According to Cicero, “‘we must shed distress or it will bring gauntness, pain, depression, and disfigurement’” (154). While Cicero might be right, grief cannot be shed by an effort of the will alone.

The Matter with Morris does not move through time in a linear fashion. Instead, scenes are repeated, with slight shifts in emphasis or slight additions of information. Although he has stopped seeing his psychiatrist, Dr. G., Morris remembers various sessions and what was said. The announcement of Martin’s death by an army chaplain is narrated once in abbreviated form, and a second time in full detail. The narrative thus enacts mourning as a slow enterprise, with backward steps and painful recollections. Grief does not offer growth, because grief cannot be ignored, only managed. Along these lines, Morris thinks, “It was truly bewildering how tedious his growth was, how slow he was to understand” (198). Whereas novels in general reinforce the incremental movement towards enlightenment or consolation, The Matter with Morris offers tougher lessons about the transitoriness of love and happiness. In a passage quoted in the novel, Petrarch assures that “you will eventually get rid of all your sadness” (8). But to shed all one’s sadness would be too blithe. To live with one’s sadness requires insight and strength of character.

The characters in The Matter with Morris are webbed into social relations that cut across generations. Morris visits his eighty-year-old father in a nursing home and babysits his grandson. Caught between the very old and the very young, Morris broods on mortality and fatherhood. The death of his son defies the natural order of generations: the young ought to grow up, have their own children. As Morris recognizes, “the father begins to exist only when he produces the son” (56). Without children, the father remains only a man. What father, except the most fatalistic, thinks of his children, “I knew, when I fathered them, that they must die” (25)? For Morris, the death of a child disarranges the concept of fatherhood.

Notwithstanding its preoccupation with death and remembrance, The Matter with Morris is a sardonic, funny novel. Despite all evidence that events are arbitrary and the world unjust, Morris holds on to the belief that “everything in the world, even the loss of his son, was necessary” (168). Morris’s grief makes him human. His optimism makes him fully human, which is a far greater, and far more difficult, attainment.  

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At press time: Allan Hepburn is Professor of English at McGill University. He has published two books: Intrigue: Espionage and Culture (2005) and Enchanted Objects: Visual Art in Contemporary Fiction (2010). He has also edited three volumes of material by Elizabeth Bowen, including previously ungathered short stories, essays, and radio broadcasts. In addition to writing a critical book about Bowen's fiction, he is researching a book on faith in mid-century British culture.

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