In A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to the mystery of “Life, the Universe, and Everything” turns out to be the number 42. In Nino Ricci’s fifth novel, Alex Fratarcangeli takes on similarly sweeping questions, with little faith that his efforts will yield more meaningful insights.
Attempts to encapsulate this exhilarating book are doomed: the banal, often farcical complexity of Alex’s life more closely resembles reality than fiction. Son of Italian immigrants and now a grad student, Alex has traded a dysfunctional family for a dysfunctional institution and city. Montreal in the 1980s – before zero tolerance, text messaging, and smoke-free zones – is a polyglot community of political refugees caught in the crossfire between Anglos and Quebecois.
Alex’s shabby apartment building, shambolically renovated by new owners, mirrors a culture that is being systematically deconstructed. Alex teaches English in a city where language is war; he studies in a discipline where postmodernists have taken the field. The unfinished dissertation he carries around like a stinking albatross attempts to link narrative theory to evolutionary theory. It isn’t going well.
Ricci imbues this novel with a darkly comic energy that transcends and transforms his melancholic central character, who spends his time brooding over the breakup of his relationship, his one-night stands, his parents, lovers, friends, and son. Weighed down as he is with guilt, it seems very unwise of Alex to strike up a friendship with Esther, a young woman fighting a losing battle with MS. Yet their meeting in his apartment lobby is one of those random connections that leads to meaningful change.
Ricci’s stylistic range is impressive, spanning the parodic to the tragic. Most memorable among the novel’s virtuoso set pieces are a stunning heart-of-darkness episode in the Galapagos and a conjunction of storytelling and evolutionary survival involving the courtship ritual of the masked booby.
Deconstruction is relatively easy, Ricci’s book tells us; what is heroic is our struggle to construct, to change and evolve, to be loving and compassionate, and to tell each other stories of hope. All of which adds up to a lot more than the number 42.