With one Giller prize under his belt, and a nomination for another, David Bergen’s star is high in the Canadian literary firmament. In this his latest book, the protagonist Morris Schutt, 51, works his way through something of a midlife crisis – a crisis of grief, really — precipitated by his son’s death in Afghanistan, for which he feels vaguely responsible. Morris is conflicted in many ways, not least of all that he was raised Mennonite (though “had shucked that off quite quickly”) and wishes he were Jewish. He sees “all of us…marching towards non-matter”; he needs “to understand how he could still grasp and hold on to the essence of his life.”
There’s not that much that happens (the critical event having occurred already), except for Morris’ inner questing, and the small steps he takes both backward and forward to respond to his situation. These acts, little more than gestures at the time, gather however, and seem both significant and hopeful by the end.
I have to say I was disappointed with the book at first. Something about the writing/characters wasn’t ringing true for me (and I don’t mean Bergen’s trademark spareness). Was it striving for affect without giving sufficient support for it? Perhaps I was comparing it to The Time in Between, which I’ve liked best of Bergen’s books so far. (I’ve not read The Retreat, the book just before this one.) But I can also say that by page 70 or so – page 76 to be precise – the book (or I?) had found its stride; found depth.
I was struck by a tiny recurring detail: Morris pulling a blanket up over someone (for example, over his letter writing friend Ursula, the prostitute Leah, his daughter Libby, and his father), tucking them in for sleep. It had a parental tenderness, but eventually I felt intimations of the undertaker as well.
Bergen insists he’s not Morris. There are certainly parallels between them, though, and Bergen admits he’s “pillaged” his own experiences for the novel. Those who know his Mennonite background and community, as I do, may find this adds layers of interest to the reading experience, and perhaps questions and some dissonance as well. I think it’s a book that needs — and provokes — further discussion, more than I’m able to give it at this time. But I’ll certainly be interested to hear from others who read the book.