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A review of The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci

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The Origin of Species captured the 2008 Governor Generals Literary Award for fiction (the second such win for Ricci, the first being his 1993 debut Lives of the Saints). It was a well-deserved honour. This dense, multi-faceted, sprawling, and thought-provoking tome explores the ideas of evolution, love, ruthlessness, human nature, relationships, nature, fatherhood, higher education, and postmodernism, among many others, in a provocative, humorous, and often moving fashion.

The primary story concerns the emotional and intellectual maturation of one Alex Fratarcangeli, a graduate student in literary studies at Concordia University in Montréal, during the mid-1980s. As the novel begins, he is emotionally and intellectually adrift, grappling with his unfinished thesis and its seemingly hopeless attempt to connect (post-)modern literary criticism and Darwinism, trying to make sense of his personal life and continued failed relationships, and dismaying at the encroaching materialism of the era. It is at this point that he meets a remarkable individual who will forever change the trajectory of his life: a young woman who will provide the spark that allows Alex to release the emotional weights of the past and allow him to see the world in a new and clear way.

The novel is divided into three sections: the first and third sections follow Alex’s adventures in the environs of mid-1980s Montreal, with flashbacks to 1970s Sweden and 1980s Ontario. The middle section is an unbroken narrative of a surreal Galapagos adventure with a disastrous outcome that provides the clues to Alex’s rebirth.

In the first and third parts, Ricci vividly captures the social and political environment of mid-1980s Montreal: its post-referendum hangover, its under-acknowledged immigrant population (the third solitude, to expand upon McLennan’s metaphor), the newly imposed language laws, and the emerging awareness of large-scale environmental issues. This was also the era in which our current unhealthy and spiritually bereft focus on economic materialism began to emerge: a phenomenon Ricci likely views as the rebirth of some form of social Darwinism.

Much of the novel deals with Alex’s wanderings around Montreal and his interactions with a fascinating cast of secondary characters: the upbeat Esther, a tenant in his apartment building; his thesis supervisor, a cynical and lecherous Eastern European émigré; a group of El Salvador émigrés living on the fringes of Quebecois society; his disinterested psychologist; an ongoing imaginary dialogue with Peter Gzowski; and, obliquely, Pierre Eliot Trudeau.

From this Montreal basis, much of the story is also told in flashbacks: to Sweden, where Alex has an affair with an older woman; to small-town southern Ontario, where Alex grew up and where his family still lives; and to the Galapagos Islands.

Initially, Alex is a difficult character to admire. His personality alternates between narcissistic self-importance and neurotic self-loathing. Yet there are glimpses of a good side that slowly emerges as the novel progresses and he begins his personal redemption.

The counterpoint to Alex pettiness and cynicism is provided in the character of Esther, an effervescent young woman who lives in his apartment building. Her exuberant and relentlessly positive view on life is tempered by a vigorous case of multiple sclerosis, which gets progressively worse as the novel progresses. Esther’s physical decline is contrasted by Alex’s emotional maturation: her deteriorating state profoundly affects Alex, making him a better person and awakening him to the arbitrary cruelness of the natural world. In a way, her decline can also be seen as a metaphor for the eclipse of goodness by 1980s era materialism. Ricci reflects this by documenting the intrusion of neo-conservative metaphors taken from the arenas of business and commerce into everyday discourse, which has ultimately culminated in the current irrational celebration of immoral and cerebrally-challenged CEOs

If Esther represents goodness, then Desmond, Alex’s partner in his Galapagos misadventure, is her exact opposite. Desmond is a vividly-drawn, despicable, amoral, self-important academic of middling reputation. Rude, ribald, and recklessly funny, Desmond takes the young Alex, who is vacationing in the Galapagos, under his wing and into a bizarre and dangerous adventure. Unbeknownst to Alex, he becomes involved a scheme to exact revenge on Desmond’s former mentor by introducing foreign species of hybrid plants into the ecosystem, a scheme that ultimately ends in tragedy.

Ricci has stated that part of the novel can be seen as a repudiation of social construction. Although social construction is a vague term that is used (and abused) in many ways, in its most strict sense it implies the uniqueness of humanity by viewing the world and its creative mechanisms as edifices based on conventional agreement rather than any notion of reality… knowledge, essentially, as a show of hands. In this view, humans stand apart from nature, but what Ricci demonstrates is that humanity is symbiotically linked with the natural world – it is an unseparable part of nature, red in tooth and claw, and to think otherwise is nothing more than self-important anthropocentrism.

Thus the incident in the Galapagos can be read as a critique of social construction. Desmond’s scheme to surreptitiously introduce a species of hybrid plants in the Galapagos and later claim them as an important discovery can be seen as a allegory of social construction, and the subsequent discovery of a similar adapted plant as an allegory of evolution. The self-centered and excessively narcissistic Desmond aptly reflects the anthropocentric conceit of social constructivism. Ricci succeeds with this rich and vivid characterization of a truly despicable individual.

This critique of social construction is highlighted by an incident with the Galapagos boody, the bird pictured on the cover of the novel. While exploring the Galapagos with Desmond, Alex sees two birds using sticks to tell stories, an incident which will have a profound effect on his thinking:

In the Galapagos Islands, the masked booby performs an elabourate mating ritual. The male approaches the female and after a series of gestures aimed at attracting her attention … he pushes before he an assortment of offerings. A stick, perhaps. A blade of dried grass. A stone. These items, there is no other way to see them, are metaphors: of food, of home, of fecundity. With them, the booby is telling his prosepective mate a story. “Come with me” he is saying, “and we will have children and live in abundance.” This strange collection of all the essential elements of narrative at the most basic level of nature suggests that this oldest of stories, the happily-ever-after of fairy tales, may be older even than we have ever imagined.

Thus narrative is not socially constructed, but is something that precedes humankind. Stories exist in nature, waiting to be told: an almost Neoplatonic conception of narrative.

And thus the title of the novel. Alex, like Darwin, introduces an innovative and audacious theory based on experiences in the Galapagos. During the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin witnessed evolution around him, inferred something important was happening, but was initially unable to recognize it as such, just as Alex was initally unable to recognize the incident with the birds. This is just one of many sublime parallels between Alex and Darwin in the novel.

Although Ricci addresses many important and varied themes, they ultimately converge on the need for love and the cruelness and arbitrariness of nature. The book is, ultimately, an homage to the remarkable character of Esther.

The Origin of Species is a tour-de-force by Ricci, and one of the finest pieces of fiction I have read in a long time. It is a dense, chaotic, and thrilling intellectual voyage can be enjoyed on many levels, will reward re-reading, and is destined to become a classic in the canon of Canadian literature. Simply put, a masterpiece.

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