Published by Soho Press
Publication date: April 30th 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Debut, Fiction
The Morels is Christopher Hacker’s provocative debut novel about a novel that begins with a chance encounter between the narrator and an old classmate named Arthur Morel. The narrator, who in an interesting twist, remains anonymous throughout the book, is attempting to become a documentary filmmaker. When he goes to the NYC apartment of the man editing his current film he encounters Arthur but it isn’t until later that he begins to remember their relationship from music school and Arthur’s dramatic departure from said school. Fourteen years have passed and Arthur is now a writer, married, with a young son. He lives on the same floor as the film editor and in a uniquely New York moment (massive power outage) they stage a barbeque on the roof with everyone from the building. Here both men reconstruct their past for the other and they begin to slip into their old friendship. It isn’t until Arthur publishes his second book that all their worlds are upended.
This is a challenging book, made more so by the fact that Arthur is a difficult protagonist. He is gifted, socially awkward, and peculiar. He writes a work of fiction but names all the characters from reality: himself, his wife, Penelope and his eleven-year-old son, Will, and gives the book an ending that is almost universally condemned for dealing with a subject far too taboo and unpleasant for most readers. At first the art world and his wife rally behind him and the sanctity of literature but this becomes untenable when his father-in-law sues him for defamation in writing about his family in such a way. Matters are compounded by Arthur’s intellectual resistance to understanding the problem, focusing instead on his in-laws stunted sensibilities in recognizing art. He uses their dislike of literature to illustrate his point.
They are not useful books. They do not confirm our understanding of ourselves and in fact often leave us more confused about ourselves than we were to begin with. They are voices from the margins that are better left to the margins. Society would not be worse off without them.
Hacker has taken a subject that most do not want to see in their fiction and turned it a much larger look at art. I had a visceral reaction of disgust and judgment on first reading the ending of Arthur’s novel but if I had stopped reading, I would have missed Hacker’s erudite journey into the purpose of art and all the questions it engenders: should art evoke reaction, what fiction means or is meant to mean, and how deeply can an author draw on life before it is non-fiction. There are some who will not be able to get past Arthur’s actions in publishing his novel (also called The Morels) but for those who can it is well worth it. Hacker explores the larger issue of truth in fiction and the more intimate issue of Arthur’s motivations. He does so, using the narrator, whose partners decide they want to make a documentary about Arthur. When approached about the idea Arthur agrees and gives them his parents’ address. Within the first meeting we learn that his mother Cynthia was fifteen when she got pregnant and his father was her forty-year-old dentist, already married with two children. She ran away to New York City where he found her and after a strange courtship they settle into an unsettled, hedonistic life with young Arthur wandering freely through the house, a child in a wildly adult atmosphere. A family friend who lived with them at the time says
But I have to marvel at just how direct a trajectory those two have sent Arthur on. That boy was wound up, from conception, destined wherever he went, whatever he did in the world, to go off in somebody’s face—in this case literally. He was Cynthia’s own Exploding Inevitable, wreaking havoc wherever he went. Destined to destroy his own family.
It is as we enter this back story, via the filming of the documentary, that the pieces click into place and Arthur loses the scales and horns that make him a terrifying figure, to become just a man who is irrevocably shaped by events in his childhood that become his undoing. The Morels provocative material is not gratuitous but necessary for the insights it unlocks. Hacker moves well beyond the realm of esoteric matters like truth and art and into the darker arena of human relationships and nurture vs. nature. He does so with prose that cuts through the intellectual meat to the bone, revealing the humanity of all involved, as deeply flawed as they might be. This is a novel that, when finished, will elicit a great deal of thought and conversation, exactly as Arthur (and very likely Hacker) wanted.