Publication Date: Apr 06, 2010
List Price US $16.95
List Price US $16.95
Winner of the 2008 Governor General’s Award for Fiction
Montreal during the turbulent mid-1980s: Chernobyl has set Geiger counters thrumming across the globe, HIV/AIDS is cutting a deadly swath through the gay population worldwide, and locally, tempers are flaring over the recent codification of French as the official language of Quebec. Hiding out in a seedy apartment near campus, Alex Fratarcangeli (“Don’t worry. . . . I can’t even pronounce it myself”), an awkward, thirty-something grad student, is plagued by the sensation that his entire life is a fraud. Scarred by a distant father and a dangerous relationship with his ex Liz, and consumed by a floundering dissertation linking Darwin’s theory of evolution with the history of human narrative, Alex has come to view love and other human emotions as “evolutionary surplus, haphazard neural responses that nature had latched onto for its own insidious purposes.” When Alex receives a letter from Ingrid, the beautiful woman he knew years ago in Sweden, notifying him of the existence of his five-year-old son, he is gripped by a paralytic terror.
Whenever Alex’s thoughts grow darkest, he recalls Desmond, the British professor with dubious credentials whom he met years ago in the Galapagos. Treacherous and despicable, wearing his ignominy like his rumpled jacket, Desmond nonetheless caught Alex in his thrall and led him to some life-altering truths during their weeks exploring Darwin’s islands together. It is only now that Alex can begin to comprehend these unlikely life lessons, and see a glimmer of hope shining through what he had thought was meaninglessness.
Excerpt from The Origin of Species
Somehow it was not Dr. Klein, however, with whom he wanted to discuss these things. That would have been too awkward, really, too demeaning. From there, it would have been only a short step to making incontrovertible what for most of his life he had striven to hide from the world, namely the dark den of banality and self-absorption that his mind truly was. There were the self-improvement fantasies that kept his revenge ones company–I will be more generous; I will quit smoking; I will learn Spanish; I will call home more often; I will stop plotting stupid revenge fantasies; I will become a better, more perfect person–or the embarrassing interviews he was forever conducting with himself in his head, and that probably constituted his main mode of self-presence. The interviews were particularly insidious. Alex himself could hardly believe how much of his mind-time they took up, and yet he couldn’t seem to muster whatever strength of will it might take to put an end to them.
“Ricci’s dry, sardonic prose is sharp, with the cadence of natural thought that tumbles forward without getting lost….There’s a biting truth to Ricci’s stunning, cerebral look at the randomness of experience and how our life choices shape us.” —Boston Globe
“I loved this book. It’s a wonderful novel, unpredictable and hugely entertaining, full of big ideas and great, great, unforgettable characters.” —Roddy Doyle, author of The Deportees and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
“Canadian writer Ricci’s fifth novel, winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, is a masterly coming-of-age story… Highly recommended, especially for fans of fellow Canadian writer Alice Munro, with whom Ricci shares a knack for irony and a talent for characterization.” —Library Journal
“Ricci’s masterstroke to date. This novel does so well, on so many levels, that it’ s hard to know where to begin tallying up the riches. . . . An ambitious, thrilling novel that resists encapsulation and takes not a single misstep . . . it is also bitterly, achingly funny.” —Toronto Star
“The Origin of Species is a profoundly moving novel that lovingly creates a world of flawed but very real characters.” —Winnipeg Free Press
“An entertaining and emotionally rewarding read, this book will transport Nino Ricci to further heights of literary stardom and could well overtake his first, Lives of the Saints, as his signature work–much as the original Origin of Species did to the career and life of Charles Darwin.” —Ottawa Citizen
1. Discuss the many pairings of fathers and sons in the novel. Do you see an underlying theme in their depictions? How does it relate to the theme of the novel itself?
2. Discuss Alex’s relationships with older male authority figures. How is he different with each of them? Why do you think this is?
3. Consider Alex’s description of Peter Gzowski on page 5, and later when he compares him to God. Why is the radio host so omnipresent in Alex’s mind?
4. Discuss the character of Desmond. Why is Alex in his “thrall,” as he puts it on page 269? What does Alex ultimately learn from his time with Desmond?
5. Discuss Alex’s relationships with the women in his life. How is he different with each of them? Why do you think this is?
6. Alex fantasizes about writing a novel about a character named K who is so overwhelmed by the significance of every action and object in his life that he comes to the brink of self-destruction, before a ray of hope breaks through. (p 194) Do you see any parallels between the actual novel and the one in Alex’s imagination?
7. In the horrifying scene in which Alex and Santos are surrounded by putrifying fish, Alex wonders about the food chain, “What could it mean, this stupid cycle? What comfort or purpose was in it?” (p. 324) What does this question say about his state of mind at the time? Will he find an answer? What do you think it is?
8. Consider the structure of this novel, split into three parts with the novella-length Galapagos section inserted midway, and an epilogue at the close. Why do you think Ricci chose to structure his novel this way? How is each section distinct? How are the quotes that begin each section significant?
9. Read the opening of Alex’s thesis proposal, starting on page 399, about storytelling and narrative as key to human evolutionary success. What do you think of his idea?
10. Why do you think Alex feels compelled to hike up Mount Royal to see the cross (part 3, chapter 10)? What changes after that walk?
11. In the Epilogue, Alex considers the relationship Darwin had with his relatively unlucky cousin Alfred Russel Wallace. Why do you think this is relevant to Alex’s life?
12. Consider Ricci’s description of the hope growing inside Alex using the metaphor of a bird. (page 471) What does hope mean for Alex? Where else do birds figure in the novel? If you are able, look up the poem by Emily Dickinson (a contemporary of Darwin) that begins, “Hope is the thing with feathers”. Do you see any parallels between Dickinson’s poem and this book?
13. Discuss Alex’s revelation about the “not-quite-describable thingness of things”. (p. 469) Have you come across such a concept before? What does it mean to you? How does it contrast with the Victorian scientific urge to name and categorize?
14. This novel is very much steeped in the time and place of mid-1980’s Montreal. What do you think of Ricci’s depiction of the political climate and culture? Did it feel accurate?