The Morels by Christopher Hacker was not at all what I was expecting when I picked up the novel. I was expecting something a little lighter, a little quirkier, something more like The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. The Morel family of the title is not particularly quirky and does not bring any of the humor of the Family Fang. Once I got past this and accepted that The Morels was a much more serious novel, the role and effect of Art at the end of the twentieth century I slowly warmed up to it. In fact by the end of the novel, I was even enjoying it, not wanting it to end.
The Morels recounts the story of child music prodigy turned writer Arthur Morel. It is told from the point of view of a childhood friend who unexpectedly comes back into his life just before the publication of his second novel. This highly autobiographical second novel entitled The Morels ends with a very troubling scene between Art and his eight year old son. Is it fiction or did it really happen?
Overall The Morels is an ambitious novel. At times this ambition slows down the plot as the characters dive down into the depths of ‘ontological ruminations’ on the true nature of art. Does art need to shock in order to be truly effective? The protagonist Art certainly thinks so and often lives by this creed to sometimes disastrous results. While Art’s actions and the inevitable fall out provide for an interesting story, the long discursive sections outlining and explaining Art’s motivations slow down the story and are at times tedious. I found this to be true especially in the early portions of the novel before I fell into Hacker’s pacing.
Perhaps the most interesting characters, Art’s parents, are not introduced until the second half of the novel. They raised Art in a most unique manner, that quite likely resulted in Art’s inability to fully fit in in regular society. For me, it was the parents and flashback to Art’s childhood that saved the novel. Until this point I was getting fed up and bored.
Who would like this book? This book would appeal to those looking for a more philosophically driven read, rather than a plot driven one. It is an excellent meditation on what it means to be an artist at this point in history. Is it the role of the artist to shock and raise consciousness? Or is it enough to submit the strictures of a market driven industry? In some ways Hacker raises issues similar to those found in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, though I found the later to be much more readable and I believe it will receive much more critical acclaim than The Morels.