Review by Frank Moher
Alex Fratarcangeli, the central character in Nino Ricci’s new novel, teaches Canadian literature, but that doesn’t mean he has to like it. A good little academic, he uses as his chief reference Margaret Atwood’s Survival, in which she confirms that “Yes, Canadian Literature existed, and a good thing it was too, otherwise where would people turn when they needed every shred of good feeling stripped from them by the description of one more protagonist ruined by unpardonable ambition or one more child frozen to death in the snow?”
That’s a pretty good summation of Atwood’s thesis, except perhaps for the part about CanLit making you want to kill yourself; if memory serves, Atwood was more bullish on it than that. (Then again, she would be.) Her exegesis held sway in the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, by which time our national literature had decided to get a life. In The Origin of Species, however, Ricci seems determined to resurrect the genre of Canadian-as-victim — though here, instead of an arctic wasteland, the antagonist is a particularly dolorous Montreal.
A refugee from a nasty sado-masochistic relationship in Toronto, Alex lands in Montreal in the mid-‘80s, when radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster, not to mention the perorations of a recently-elected Brian Mulroney, has rendered the atmosphere stanky. He’s not big on his doctoral work at Concordia University, trying to “link evolutionary theory to theories of narrative.” He’s not big on his sessions with Dr. Klein, a Freudian psychotherapist. He’s not big on much of anything. Alex is what people like Alex would call a “passive protagonist.” The rest of you might call him a “sad sack.”
Montreal is populated with refugees from more pressing situations — particularly a community of Salvadorans who have escaped horrific state violence at home. They are among a range of characters Ricci uses to examine the ways in which social Darwinism plays out in an urban, intellectual setting. Alex’s thesis advisor, in the position of alpha male, routinely savages his ideas, but the power shifts when the advisor’s marriage breaks up and he needs someplace to stay. At the same time, Alex fights a pitched battle with the management of his apartment building as they try to raise rents and drive out any resisters. The ultimate alpha males in his universe are Pierre Trudeau and Rená Lávesque, who live nearby, “not five hundred yards from one another, like the wolf and sheepdog in the cartoon Alex had watched as a kid who used every foul means to outwit one another all the day long but then punched the clock promptly at five and parted amicably.”
I’d note that “one another” is a solecism here, but that would make me pedantic and reduce my own alpha male status. But it might be worth remarking that all this gets a bit schematic — Ricci is trying to turn a concept into human currency and goes about it with the earnest relentlessness of a doctoral candidate. A middle section in which Alex actually travels to the Galapagos and meets up with an obsessed British biologist shakes things up a bit; the biologist is rendered broadly but at least he has a life apart from the author’s thesis. Otherwise, the attempt to locate determinism in daily activity extends even to boyhood brawls. Alex is present when the son of a friend, white, picks a fight with another child, black. “They’d been nothing but animals then, bundles of instinct. The most dangerous creatures on earth.”
Ricci writes beautifully, sentence by sentence, especially in the book’s final passages, when he renders Montreal as rapturously as Joyce does Dublin. But he never manages to overcome the inertness of his central character, who is precisely as uninteresting as the banal conflicts he gives up on the couch of his therapist. Alex has had more serial relationships than a Woody Allen prototype, but in the end he can barely drag himself away from his internal turbulence long enough to acknowledge that one of them has resulted in a son, whom maybe he should father. We are asked to regard this as progress, which it is, but not exactly enough to hang a novel on.
In Survival, Margaret Atwood wrote that the root impulse of Canadian literature is “hanging on, staying alive . . . . Our central idea is one which generates an almost intolerable anxiety.” This works well enough if the hero is, say, trapped on an ice floe or sinking in a northern Manitoba swamp. But when his biggest concern is whether he’s going to get thrown out of his rent-regulated apartment, it all seems a little less pressing. Hangdoggedness may once have been our writing’s defining feature, but in Origin of the Species, it has reached an evolutionary dead-end.
First published in The National Post