Writing about Death

Reviewed by Adrienne Kertzer

David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris begins with an epigraph from Saul Bellow’s Herzog, one of the many ways Bergen directs the reader to imagine his protagonist, Morris Schutt, as a Canadian, non-Jewish Herzog. Like Bellow’s protagonist Herzog, Morris is a professional writer. However, after his son Martin dies in Afghanistan, Morris can no longer write the kind of witty autobiographical newspaper columns that charmed his readers and alienated his family. On an enforced leave, he liquidates his investments, and cancels his cell phone, credit cards, and e-mail. Enraged by the circumstances of his son’s death, including his role in provoking his son’s enlistment, he embarks on a philosophical quest to learn how to live justly. He thinks that if he understands Socrates and the bigger questions, “he might not be so flummoxed by his own littleness.” One of the many books he consults is Bellow’s Herzog whose protagonist asks similar questions and “in the midst of his madness … [writes] unsent letters full of playful and searing intellect to people both dead and alive.”

In contrast to Herzog whose quest is driven by his wife’s infidelity, Morris’s private grief is framed by political events: a consequence of the American invasion of Afghanistan and Canada’s willingness to send soldiers to that country. Bergen emphasizes the public context for Morris’s mourning when Morris, unlike Herzog, actually mails the letters that he writes. One of his letters addressed to the prime minister leads to an RCMP investigation. Herzog has trouble explaining to police why he is carrying his father’s loaded gun; in contrast, Morris, a self-declared pacifist, possesses a gun because he has stolen it from an American woman in an attempt to keep her from using it. Bergen’s ironic treatment of Morris’s dilemma in imagining how he will explain his possession of the gun to the RCMP extends to his satire of Morris’s beliefs about Jewish identity. Morris doesn’t just admire Jewish novelists; he repeatedly wishes he were Jewish, because he is convinced that if he were, he would know better how to respond to Martin’s death. Whenever Morris meets someone whose approach to suffering he admires, he is likely to ask “Are you Jewish?” Rarely does anyone answer in the affirmative, and he is frequently disappointed when the Jewish men he meets do not match his preconception about what Jewish men are like. How to respond best to suffering is also highlighted in the novel’s ending when Morris, like Herzog, decides to stop writing letters. Planning the apology that will be the subject of his first column, Morris imagines that he will apologize “to the writers [such as Bellow] he had stolen from.” He then quotes the passage from Herzog in which Herzog critiques the advocacy and praise of suffering. The final pages of the novel depict Morris at a Remembrance Day ceremony as his father, who can no longer remember very much, sings Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” It’s not clear if Morris’s father can understand the lyrics, but the music consoles him.

Bonnie Burnard’s Suddenly looks at contemporary suffering and death in a different context. Her novel examines the reactions of “standard-issue, middle-aged women,” Sandra and her two best friends, when Sandra is diagnosed with breast cancer. The novel begins in 2000 just after Sandra has found the “hard little bastard bullet” but before she has told anyone or even had time to write in her journal about this discovery. It then moves to 2004, during the days of her dying when one of the few activities she and her two closest friends are still capable of is to read brief passages from the journals she has kept. The novel concludes little more than a year later, just after Jack, her widowed husband, instructs one of her friends to review the journals and decide whether Sandra’s daughters should have them. Historical events are not absent, but they are secondary to the interpersonal relationships and events that dominate Sandra’s life: 9/11 is the day that she learned that her breast cancer had spread; the Vietnam war is the event that leads one female friend’s partner to abandon her; and the invasion of Kuwait, a minor part of the journal entry that Jack reads in a desperate attempt to communicate with his comatose wife.

In contrast to the objections Morris Schutt’s family raise about his willingness to turn their private experiences into matters of public knowledge, Sandra’s friends, Jude and Colleen, even when they disagree with Sandra’s account of events, take comfort in the journals. Because friendship is the accumulation of knowledge by the other, death represents the loss of that knowledge and threatens the self’s survival: “how can she survive now, without this friend who knows her as well as she knows herself?” Both friends are uncertain about what Sandra would like them to do with the journals; one later recalls Sandra’s use of the conditional, “I guess if I don’t want them read, I could tell you to take them with you today.” The journals serve as entries into the complex relationship of the three women, the men in their lives, and their children.

In The Matter with Morris, Bergen’s subject is a father’s response to his son’s death; the reactions of his children, his wife, and his would-be mistress who is grieving the loss of her son in Iraq are all provided from Morris’s perspective. As the title indicates, what is the matter is the matter with Morris. In contrast, in Suddenly, the representation of dying necessitates multiple perspectives. A typical chapter begins with Sandra examining her journal for its description of a print she bought during a trip to Mexico. It then shifts to Colleen’s longing to discuss with her dying friend (and sister-in-law) her husband’s confession of his infidelity, a desire that leads Colleen to recall her own memories of that confession, and then, following the question she asks Sandra, a determination on Sandra’s part to remind Colleen of some instance of her husband’s kindness. But Sandra, distracted by thinking of her brother’s kindness to her, suddenly desires to see the Mexican print—the last time she leaves her bedroom—and never gets to talk to Colleen about her husband’s kindness. What remains is what she has written in the journals and her friends’ recognition that her writing had made “three unlikely lives … complementary, somehow, in the telling.”

This review “Writing about Death” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 147-149.

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