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Sex and the Grad Student

Nino Ricci's portrait of a young, brainy boobie. Worth the acclaim?

By Stan Persky 25 Mar 2009 |

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano University in North Vancouver, B.C. His most recent book is Topic Sentence: A Writer's Education (2007).

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Ricci, author of 'The Origin of Species'
  • The Origin of Species
  • Nino Ricci
  • Doubleday Canada (2008)

If you're planning to read Nino Ricci's The Origin of Species, winner of the 2008 Governor General's Award for fiction, your college notes from Zoology 100 may come in handy. Perhaps the main biological distinction of campus life worth remembering is that in the post-secondary education system there are two species of students: undergraduates and graduate students. In his latest novel, Canadian writer Ricci tells one of their stories.

Undergraduates are of course younger than their more experienced comperes, usually between 18 and 22, while the grad students, who have already acquired a degree, range from their mid-20s to mid-30s. Although I'm one of a minority of profs who prefers undergraduate teaching, the majority of professors, I think, would rather hang out with the graduate students, who tend to be more like themselves: they're narrowly focussed on the technical details of a dissertation topic or research project, politically calculating, obsequious, often intellectually timid and/or cynical, and generally not as cute as the undergrads, although in the bad old days of education (c. 1950-2000), a lot of male professors had the habit of deserting their wives and taking up with a female grad student.

I dredge up these yellowed zoological observations about academia because the main character of Ricci's award-winning Origin of Species, is a grad student. Alex Fratarcangeli ("I can't even pronounce it myself," he self-deprecatingly says of his tongue-twisting surname) is a 30-ish Canadian of Italian parentage doing a PhD degree in English literature at Concordia University in sovereignty-embattled Montreal in the mid-1980s. Admittedly, my distaste for Alex and his anxieties, ditherings, betrayals and other moral failings may be more of a "professional deformation," as it's sometimes called, than a flaw in the design of Ricci's long-ish (nearly 500 pages), raggedy, coming-of-graduate-age novel.

Perfectly timed

Ricci is the author of Testament (2002), a very fine historical novel about Jesus (in my opinion, the best of the Jesus novels I've read), and before that, The Lives of the Saints, the first of a trilogy about growing up Italian-Canadian, which also won a GG Award for fiction. His new novel, which takes its title from Charles Darwin's 1859 treatise about evolution, On The Origin of Species, capitalizes on a certain timeliness, given that 2009 is the 150th anniversary of that ground-breaking work's publication. This year is also the 200th anniversary of the great naturalist's birth in 1809.

The initial ostensible connection between Darwin and the peregrinations of Alex is his perpetually postponed PhD dissertation in literature, which has something to do with the relationship between literary narrative and the mechanisms of evolution. The exact connection is murky until late in the novel, and even then it remains rather fuzzy.

While Alex dawdles toward his thesis proposal, Ricci keeps his protagonist very busy. In addition to classes with the theory-spouting Prof. Jiri Novak, Alex has to cobble together a living by teaching ESL at the local Berlitz language school, where his oppressive boss, Madame Hertz, keeps an owlish disapproving eye on him, and where he's more or less courted by Felix, a gay Quebecois businessman who wants to polish his English.

Most of Alex's free time is devoted to meeting, brooding about and bedding various women in his life. There's his ex, Liz, with whom he had a tangled relationship that ended in unpleasant B&D sex; there's Swedish Ingrid, the older woman with whom he had an on-and-off affair during an earlier Wanderjahre phase, and which produced, to his surprise, an offspring; in the present there's Maria, the Salvadoran refugee he's lusting after to little avail; Esther, the fellow grad student in his apartment building suffering terminal multiple sclerosis; then there's Amanda who... well, you practically need a scorecard to keep track of the players.

As if that's not enough plot for this bildungsroman, Alex also has to cope with his thesis adviser, Jiri, who ends up camping out at Alex's digs as a result of his own frayed relationships. There are swarms of the aforementioned displaced Salvadorans to navigate among while chasing Maria; there's an on-going quasi-political domestic tussle between Alex the tenant and the unscrupulous landlords of his apartment building; and finally, there's daily navel-gazing from the couch of the office of Alex's passive-aggressive psychiatrist. The latter inspires lots of depressing flashbacks about Alex's failed relationships.

Potpourri of Canadiana

On top of all that, there's also the faint watercolour backdrop of Quebec politics in the wake of the failed 1980 sovereignty referendum (Pierre Trudeau makes a ghostly cameo appearance), and the previously noted lonely gay Quebecois businessman -- the prospect of whom leaves Alex characteristically bemused and adrift. There's even a running imaginary conversation with Peter Gzowski, the Canadian morning radio talkshow icon, to provide additional commentary upon the commentary.

It's never quite clear why these various people are so attracted to Alex, but then there's no accounting for tastes, I suppose, at least not for tastes in grad students. More problematic, it's never quite clear if Alex cares about anything, even as he makes all the appropriate gestures.

Ricci's novel feels heavily reworked over a long period of writing. There's all that top-heavy plotting furniture to constantly rearrange (and I haven't even mentioned various subplots involving family members of the onstage characters). Many of Alex's broodings are about past events, so there's quite a bit of scene-shuffling flashbacks to attend to. Often, minor characters popped up and I'd find myself momentarily wondering whether this was the wife of the guy whose kid got beaned by the child of the Haitian refugee or if this was someone else Alex had slept with or wanted to sleep with or... Similarly, my sense of time was dislocated, and I kept flipping back to see if were in 1985 or 1980 or when.

These are not good signs. And since Ricci's protagonist is so relentlessly tentative about his intentions, I could never quite figure out the author's own intentions for his mostly unpleasant cast of characters. Is Ricci trying to portray the intellectual, emotional and moral ambivalence of such people, or is he doing something else? Beats me. If he's trying to accurately capture the drifting ambiguity of young intellectuals in early mid-life, I suppose he's onto something, but even so, it doesn't tell us much about "life" that we don't already know.

A sudden, brutish jolt

After about 225 pages of maintaining a patience that oscillated between mild interest and irritation -- admittedly, at a certain point you just get sucked into the story, sort of like you do while watching good, bad, or indifferent TV of the Law and Order variety -- I'd decided that Alex was a slightly-less-than-interesting boobie, using that term in the dictionary definition sense of a rather hapless, stupid person.

And then, unexpectedly, something happens. Real boobies appear. Boobies -- in this case, so-called "masked boobies," because of their dark heads and beaks -- are large seabirds of the gannet family who nest on remote islands, such as the Galapagos Islands. Ricci announces it's 1980, and the formal flashback that follows is about a hundred page novella set in the Galapagos, several hundred kilometres off the coast of Ecuador, the same islands that Charles Darwin wrote about in The Voyage of the Beagle, and where he allegedly received the flash of inspiration that led to the theory of evolution. In case we miss the point about boobies, a picture of one -- with stubby legs, long neck, and quizzical dark gaze -- appears on the cover of Ricci's book.

Ricci's awkwardly inserted novella is magnificently Conradian in its intensity and savagery. The boobie-ish Alex, still on his irregular grand tour of the world, stumbles into a sea voyage to the bleak Galapagos in the company of an older embittered British grad student named Desmond, and a brutish Latin fishing boat captain. Desmond, a nasty sub-species of grad student at its most obsessive, is out to gather primitive flora that has something to do with evolution and his own doctoral thesis, the fisherman is out for fish and tourist dollars, and bumbling Alex is along for the educational ride. What follows is an utterly gripping tale of knowledge and danger, set in the Galapagos' primaevel land and seascapes, complete with boobies, turtles, extinct volcanoes, gravelly beaches, and the savage often mysterious emotions of the travellers. All of this may or may not have something to do with "the origin of species," but if nothing else it at least reminds us that in a Hobbesian "state of nature," lives tend to be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

Meanwhile, back in Montreal

The remaining 150 pages or so of the book, in which Ricci returns us to the mid-'80s present day in Montreal and ties up the many loose ends of the plot, is bound to be somewhat anti-climatic after the breathless life-and-death voyage to the Galapagos. Even Alex, in his dim way, senses the "burgeoning untidiness" of his life: "He could feel the clutter stretching out around him, growing more and more unruly." His sessions on the psychiatric couch "were merely part of the problem now, spewing psychic debris that was just left to moulder in their wake." Or as the imaginary Peter Gzowski puts it, "But then look at your life. It's just one damned thing after another -- the Galapagos, Liz, Amanda, then this amazing woman who's... dying in front of your eyes." Ricci attempts to offer a glimmer of hope in the shape of Alex's accidental fatherhood, but it's not especially convincing.

About the only interesting thing that happens is that, after several years of dithering, Alex suddenly pounds out his thesis proposal. It opens:

"In the Galapagos Islands, the masked booby performs an elaborate mating ritual. The male approaches the female and after a series of gestures aimed at attracting her attention... he pushes before her 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 prospective mate a story... This strange collocation of all the essential elements of narrative at the most basic level of nature suggests that this oldest of stories... may be older even than we have ever imagined."

The literary point, according to Alex, is that "the narrative predates us... it can be thought of not as belated, as an afterthought, but as originary, before speech, before language itself." Perhaps the idea of a story is built-in to existence, "is primal beyond reckoning and... goes back to the very beginnings of life itself."

You don't have to agree with Alex about the primacy of story as the "origin of species," but these brief passages from his thesis proposal are so much more articulate than anything that's been suggested about Alex in the preceding 400 pages, that I would have preferred to go on reading the thesis rather than the conclusion of Ricci's novel.

Winner emerges from swamp

As usual with these matters, I'm puzzled by the choice of Ricci's Origin as the best novel published in Canada last year. Even though it rates at best three stars (maybe two-and-three-quarters stars) out of five, perhaps it was indeed the best of the lot (I haven't read the others). Although Ricci's novel doesn't quite hold together (apart from the taut Galapagos novella), Ricci himself strikes me as a serious writer, in the good sense of "serious." He takes on difficult intellectual and emotional subject matter, doesn't offer easy solutions, and in at least one stretch of this book, writes gripping prose.

Although the ways of GG juries are more mysterious than the workings of divinities, at least the choice of Ricci's book strikes me as more interesting than the winner of the 2007 GG for fiction, Michael Ondaatje's gothic romance, Divisadero. For readers seeking something of an antidote to Ricci's version, I can recommend Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos (1985), which also sports on its cover a picture of a pair of nuzzling boobies. Written in the same year in which Ricci's book is set, Vonnegut's comic thesis is that evolution, especially the human part, was all a big mistake. To him, we're all boobies.