The Origin of Species, by Nino Ricci

Ricci's fifth novel presents an interesting conundrum. Throughout the book I found myself wondering if I should keep reading because the prose is so well-crafted or toss it aside because the main character is so unpleasant.

A graduate student in Montreal in the 1980s, Alex is a mess. His apartment is a shambles, full of boxes he's never bothered to unpack. Constantly short of money, he seems incapable of feeding himself or otherwise attending to the basics of life. Late for the tutoring sessions he is supposed to lead, he is equally unprepared for his own classes. He cannot get started on his dissertation, having lost the impetus of his original notion of tying evolutionary theory to theories of narrative. He is haunted by the memory of the trip to Galapagos that started him down that path. He has no close friends, terrified as he is that someone will expose him for the fraud he believes himself to be. He cannot accept responsibility even for himself much less for the effect of his actions on others.

In the lobby of his apartment building, Alex meets Esther, a young woman trembling on her cane who asks him for a cigarette. She has none of the self-consciousness that plagues Alex, and immediately subjects him to a stream of personal information. It's not all give, though. She's equally intense about listening to Alex go on about his problems. Although it makes him late for his counseling session with Dr. Klein, whom he has been seeing since the breakup with his girlfriend, Liz, and a little put off by Esther's emotional neediness, Alex nevertheless spends several hours with her, going for a cappuccino and then shopping.

I can remember a time when I was as self-conscious as Alex, holding back in social situations to see what others did first, so wrapped up in my own insecurities that I could not begin to imagine what was going on in the other person's head. However, that was when I was a teenager, not in my mid-thirties like Alex. Reading this book, I could summon no sympathy for his maudlin narcissism. Alex squirms his way through life, casually and thoughtlessly damaging everyone he meets. Even the final redemption promised by one reviewer fails to convince; there is no reason to believe that he will begin to recognise that other people actually exist, not just as minor characters in his personal drama, but as stars in their own right.

And yet, there's the writing. Ricci's prose is not poetic, like Anne Michaels'. Rather it has a clarity that pulls you in and along until before you know it another hundred pages have flown by. One device that starts out hilarious but becomes quite moving as the story progresses is Alex's habit of maintaining a dialogue in his head with a number of interviewers, but primarily the television journalist, Peter Gzowski. These dialogues are part of an interview in some fictitious future when Alex's genius has been recognised by the world. They enable Alex to understand what is happening to him, while at the same time recasting it to make himself appear in a more positive light to his imaginary public. Of course, they also keep him from actually experiencing his own life.

I very much liked the structure of the book. One of the challenges of writing a novel is figuring out how to incorporate the back story—what has happened in the past—without bogging down the main narrative. Ricci's allusions to certain events in the past, such as the breakup with Liz and the trip to Galapagos, had me so curious that I was thrilled when he finally just plunged into the past to give us the whole story. In the hands of a less subtle writer, these hints and references could have been annoying, but Ricci judges perfectly how much is enough without being too much.

The characters, too, are brilliant, from Alex's young student, Miguel, who often seems to know more than Alex to the mysterious and slightly sinister Desmond who offers him a ship and a job on Galapagos. The female characters are less well-drawn, but that seems appropriate for a book from Alex's point of view.

I've often heard the proposition that while both men and women read work by men, men tend not to read work by women. Generalizations usually put me off, making me rush to think of exceptions, but I did find myself wondering if a male reader might be more sympathetic to Alex as a character. Not that men have cornered the market on irresponsible narcissism by any means, but when I was in my mid-thirties, I was a single parent working two jobs and still struggling to pay the bills and raise my children properly—not a position many men find themselves in—so maybe that was why I couldn't be bothered with this kind of whinging at the time and now find it so shocking in a man of Alex's age.

When the story focuses on action, such as in the Galapagos section, rather than on Alex's self-pitying maunderings, the story becomes far more interesting. The book has won many kudos, including the usually reliable Governor General's Award, so perhaps others were not so bothered by Alex as I was.

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